The classic game show “Let’s Make a Deal,” is all about risk management. Contestants are given a prize of nominal value and then are tempted by boxes, doors and other vessels containing unknown treasures.
It’s a difficult assessment to make. Greed can lead to disaster, but shrewd strategists can win big.
NFL talent evaluators find themselves in that position this spring with Stanford offensive tackle Walker Little. The No. 9 rated player in the 2017 recruiting class, he became the first freshman to start at left tackle for the Cardinal in nearly 20 years.
After two promising seasons, however, Little suffered a knee injury in the 2019 opener and opted out of 2020 entirely. So any team drafting the 6-foot-7, 313-pounder must make a leap of faith.
“I think I’m a much better player than the last time these guys saw me, and I really tried to show that today,” Little told reporters at Stanford’s pro day March 18. “And I think I’m in a lot better shape, feel like I know the game a lot better than I ever have and I’m more prepared than I’ve ever been to get back into it, start playing again and get to the NFL and start playing against some really good competition.”
It's not as though Little has spent the past two years on the couch.
After deciding to opt out, he enlisted the services of two of the most respected offensive line gurus in the nation – Paul Alexander and Duke Mayweather – and got to work. The goals went well beyond conditioning and staying in “football shape.”
Little’s eyes have been on the NFL from the start. He chose Stanford in part because head coach David Shaw runs a pro-style offense that could make for an easier transition, and his work with Alexander and Mayweather was all about getting to the next level.
“I think there’s no replication of playing,” Little said, noting his work with Alexander and Mayweather could not replace the college football season. “I love to play anytime I can, but in terms of what we did, it was a lot of looking toward NFL pass rushers, working on kind of specifics to get ready for the NFL. So, in that way, it was very beneficial to kind of change that mindset and look forward to the NFL sooner than maybe some of the guys who were playing this season.”
The question now becomes how soon Little will be selected.
He was well on his way to the first round early in his career, but the two-year layoff obviously muddies the waters. It is a testament to his talent and potential, however, that projections still have him in the second- to third-round range.
In a deep tackle class, Little believes he has a few traits that stand out.
“I think I’m probably one of the bigger offensive tackles in this draft and then pairing that with some really good athleticism, really good feet,” he said. “It’s a combination that I don’t know any other offensive linemen really have in this draft, and then I think I’ve shown a lot of ability to have good hands both in the run game and in the pass game, and that’s something that becomes ever more important at this next level with the freaks you have to go against day in and day out.”
Little has a deep football pedigree.
His grandfather Gene Little played college football at Rice and was drafted in the 18th round by the New York Giants in 1952. Jack Little, Gene’s brother and Walker’s great uncle, was an offensive lineman at Texas A&M and a fifth-round pick by the Baltimore Colts in 1953.
Little’s doing everything he can to maximize his own opportunity. In video calls with teams, he’s made it clear he’s willing to play right tackle or guard if that’s what it takes to make a roster.
“I think I’m the best tackle in this draft, but I’ll do whatever a team needs me to do,” Little said. “I’m just there to compete and help a team win a championship.”