‘Freaking phenomenal’ – DB Tariq Woolen is Seahawks’ greatest since Richard Sherman

IN AN INSTANT, Tariq Woolen had gone from smiles to tears.

The Seattle Seahawks’ happy-go-lucky rookie phenom was standing on the podium inside SoFi Stadium, answering questions on key performs that the cornerback had made in a street win over the Los Angeles Rams.

Woolen had baited quarterback John Wolford into throwing a deep cross that he picked off for his sixth interception of the season, tying the NFL lead and breaking a franchise rookie document that was beforehand shared by Earl Thomas and Michael Boulware.

He had two different cross breakups, one which helped seal the win and one other by which he turned on the jets to shut a 4-yard hole towards speedy broad receiver Tutu Atwell earlier than swatting away what would have been an extended completion, if not a landing.

“Most of the time, when it’s a deep ball,” Woolen mentioned, “I never feel like I’m beat.”

Then got here the query that obtained him.

Requested about how he has gone from a fifth-round draft select of the College of Texas at San Antonio to the highest of the NFL and franchise leaderboards as a rookie, Woolen rubbed his eyes.

“Man, I just think it’s a blessing. I remember on draft day, just sitting in the living room,” he mentioned, pausing to wipe tears from his cheeks. “I don’t want to get too emotional, but I just remember sitting in front of my family, just getting calls from different people. I was just embarrassed because I was thinking it was a team calling because I was hearing different stuff. I was just seeing corners go, corners go, corners go … And then Day 3 came.”

Woolen, 23, thought he was going to be drafted within the second or third spherical. The Seahawks took him at No. 153 general.

However this is not one other story a few participant utilizing his draft-weekend slide as motivational gasoline to set the league on hearth. It is about how shortly Woolen has risen from a supposed challenge choose to a ball-hawking playmaker and a contender for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Yr.

And he has been a vivid spot on a protection that is reeling heading into Thursday evening’s recreation towards the San Francisco 49ers (9-4) at Seattle’s Lumen Area. The Seahawks (7-6) have to win to remain alive within the NFC West race and keep away from falling any additional out of the convention playoff image.

The Seahawks have not had this sort of menace at nook since Richard Sherman, who labored with the rookie in his visits to the Seahawks coaching camp and will probably be a part of the Prime Video broadcast crew calling Thursday’s contest.

“He’s been outstanding,” Sherman instructed ESPN. “He’s been freaking phenomenal.”

CATCHING HIS BREATH inside Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium, Woolen was in disbelief.

He had run his second 40-yard sprint in 4.26 seconds, tied for the fourth quickest on the NFL scouting mix since 2006.

He additionally recorded a 42-inch vertical bounce. Woolen is the one participant because the begin of 2006 to run that quick and bounce that top on the mix, in keeping with ESPN Stats & Info; and at 6-foot-4⅛, he’s tied for the third-tallest cornerback measured throughout that span.

Whereas Woolen had the uncommon mixture of measurement and bodily expertise, Seattle coach Pete Carroll mentioned he fell to the fifth spherical as a result of his inconsistent faculty tape additionally confirmed a participant who was “rough around the edges,” with solely two full seasons of expertise at cornerback.

As a sophomore broad receiver for UTSA in 2019, Woolen wasn’t taking part in a lot on offense. With the Roadrunners banged up at cornerback late within the season, then-coach Frank Wilson pulled him apart behind a gathering room and proposed the swap, attempting to promote him on the chance to see the sphere.

Woolen wasn’t . He all the time had performed offense, and he did not actually know methods to sort out, nor did he need to. However he reluctantly agreed.

Woolen took reps at each positions in observe for a few weeks then made his first look at cornerback within the season finale.

It turned out to be career-altering.

Seahawks defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt and Carroll rode with Woolen from Week 1 as their beginning proper cornerback, enduring the rising pains — some early penalties, the occasional lapse in protection and spotty run protection — that he offset with large performs.

The primary such play got here at San Francisco in Week 2, when he shot round the appropriate edge and used one among his 33⅝-inch arms to dam a discipline aim strive that teammate Mike Jackson returned for an 86-yard landing. By this level, Hurtt had already begun calling Woolen “The Avatar,” a nod to his nearly otherworldly mix of bodily traits.

“Those arms are what you look for in a pass-rusher,” Hurtt mentioned. “You want guys to have length like that that usually rush the passer for a living or they’re pass protecting the quarterback for a living. He’s out there with little guys at the line of scrimmage, and they can’t even touch his body when he’s extending out.”

In October, Woolen turned solely the third NFL rookie since 2000 to document an interception in 4 straight video games. Considered one of them was a 40-yard pick-six on the Detroit Lions in Week 4. He reached a high pace of 21.58 mph on the return, the seventh-fastest recorded time of any ball service this season, in keeping with Subsequent Gen Stats.

Woolen realizes now that the place swap he initially fought ended up placing him on a path to stardom. He and Wilson hadn’t parted methods on good phrases, however Woolen determined to ship his former coach a textual content final month.

“Everything that I wanted to do, being an NFL football player, is happening,” Woolen mentioned. “So I just told him thank you, and he appreciated it.”

SHERMAN DOESN’T LIKE to partake in what’s change into a preferred comparability, preferring as a substitute to present Woolen his personal lane. However the similarities between them make it not possible to see Woolen with out pondering of Sherman.

They share the identical lengthy, angular construct that Carroll has all the time sought in a press nook. They have been drafted in the identical spherical, one choose aside. They loved the identical early success; Sherman picked off 4 passes in 10 begins as a rookie. They usually each started their faculty careers as broad receivers.

Early in coaching camp, Carroll noticed Woolen’s offensive background serving to him at nook the identical means Sherman’s used to. Having run the identical routes he was now defending, Woolen might acknowledge a break up second sooner the place the receiver may be breaking.

However nobody would’ve figured Woolen for an ex-receiver primarily based on his palms.

“When we first got here in rookie minicamp and going through OTAs and whatnot, he couldn’t catch a cold in Alaska,” Hurtt mentioned. “It was rough. He was dropping everything, and I’m sitting here looking at the film like, ‘This damn guy, he’s got stone hands.'”

Woolen believes one of many causes he has taken such a drastic leap ahead since faculty is as a result of the NFL work week affords him extra time to refine his recreation than he had whereas juggling soccer with college. The work he has achieved on his palms is the proper instance.

Woolen started becoming a member of Seahawks receivers of their post-practice routines, catching footballs fired from a Jugs machine and tennis balls bounced off a wall. He additionally developed a routine with No. 3 quarterback Sean Mannion, asking him to throw him a cross as he’s working again to the defensive huddle in between each play in observe.

Woolen’s six interceptions are 4 greater than he had in 20 faculty video games at cornerback. He has thanked Mannion after every one.

“He’s come full circle,” Hurtt mentioned of Woolen. “It’s not just the talent, but it’s the work ethic.”

It is one factor to have the bodily instruments. It is one other factor, Sherman mentioned, to place all of them to make use of in the intervening time of fact, when a cornerback has to resolve in a fraction of a second whether or not to make the protected play or to go for the large play.

On the New Orleans Saints in Week 5, Woolen went for it.

Seattle’s defensive name on a second-and-14 play within the third quarter didn’t give him any security assist excessive, which meant Woolen’s first accountability was to cowl the deep ball. The cushion {that a} nook has to present the receiver in that scenario normally leaves him susceptible to an out route. However when Tre’Quan Smith sprinted off the road and broke towards the sideline after 15 yards, Woolen obtained there in time to select it off.

“To be able to cover the deep ball — which he was in position to do that — and come back and to have the rhythm and sense to jump that route too, that’s a big deal,” Carroll mentioned. “It wasn’t like he lucked out. It wasn’t like he guessed. He just played the route, and he was on it and got his foot on the ground and got back and made a terrific catch with a guy contesting it …

“I have been teaching the secondary for 1,000,000 years. If I might discover the protection the place a man can cowl the deep ball and the out routes, I might name it each snap. It would not exist.”

Sherman pointed to that interception as an example of how Woolen is using more than just his physical traits — including situation awareness, route recognition and guts — to make plays.

“He is not interested by the draw back of it, so there’s not that hesitation,” Sherman said. “He is simply believing in what he sees, and that is actually cool. That is the onerous half concerning the league. That is what separates good gamers from nice gamers and Corridor of Fame gamers, is that inhibition, that seed of doubt that, ‘Hey, they may do that.’ … However when you by no means take into consideration that doubt, then you definitely simply imagine what you see. You set your foot within the floor and go.”

While Woolen has been the headliner of what already looks like the Seahawks’ best draft class in a decade, he has longer odds for the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award than the favorite, New York Jets cornerback Sauce Gardner. Gardner leads the NFL with 16 passes defensed, while Woolen is tied for third with 13.

But as Woolen has shown, he can make up ground in a hurry.

“He is grown rather a lot since OTAs and minicamp after which coaching camp; he took lots of large steps,” Sherman said. “It is simply every little thing you’ll hope for by way of his growth and his evolution, by way of psychological and bodily and form of simply evolving as a nook within the Nationwide Soccer League.”