IN AN INSTANT, Tariq Woolen had gone from smiles to tears.
The Seattle Seahawks‘ happy-go-lucky rookie phenom was standing at the podium inside SoFi Stadium, answering questions about key plays that the cornerback had made in a road win over the Los Angeles Rams.
Woolen had baited quarterback John Wolford into throwing a deep pass that he picked off for his sixth interception of the season, tying the NFL lead and breaking a franchise rookie record that was previously shared by Earl Thomas and Michael Boulware.
He had two other pass breakups, one that helped seal the win and another in which he turned on the jets to close a 4-yard gap against speedy wide receiver Tutu Atwell before swatting away what would have been a long completion, if not a touchdown.
“Most of the time, when it’s a deep ball,” Woolen said, “I never feel like I’m beat.”
Then came the question that got him.
Asked about how he has gone from a fifth-round draft pick out of the University of Texas at San Antonio to the top 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 said, 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 in the second or third round. The Seahawks took him at No. 153 overall.
But this isn’t another story about a player using his draft-weekend slide as motivational fuel to set the league on fire. It’s about how quickly Woolen has risen from a supposed project pick to a ball-hawking playmaker and a contender for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
And he has been a bright spot on a defense that’s reeling heading into Thursday night’s game against the San Francisco 49ers (9-4) at Seattle’s Lumen Field. The Seahawks (7-6) need to win to stay alive in the NFC West race and avoid falling any further out of the conference playoff picture.
The Seahawks haven’t had this kind of threat at corner since Richard Sherman, who worked with the rookie in his visits to the Seahawks training camp and will be part of the Prime Video broadcast crew calling Thursday’s contest.
“He’s been outstanding,” Sherman told 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 dash in 4.26 seconds, tied for the fourth fastest at the NFL scouting combine since 2006.
He also recorded a 42-inch vertical jump. Woolen is the only player since the start of 2006 to run that fast and jump that high at the combine, according to ESPN Stats & Information; and at 6-foot-4⅛, he is tied for the third-tallest cornerback measured during that span.
While Woolen had the rare combination of size and physical skills, Seattle coach Pete Carroll said he fell to the fifth round because his inconsistent college tape also showed a player who was “rough around the edges,” with only two full seasons of experience at cornerback.
As a sophomore wide receiver for UTSA in 2019, Woolen wasn’t playing much on offense. With the Roadrunners banged up at cornerback late in the season, then-coach Frank Wilson pulled him aside in the back of a meeting room and proposed the switch, trying to sell him on the opportunity to see the field.
Woolen wasn’t interested. He always had played offense, and he didn’t really know how to tackle, nor did he want to. But he reluctantly agreed.
Woolen took reps at both positions in practice for a couple of weeks then made his first appearance at cornerback in 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 starting right cornerback, enduring the growing pains — some early penalties, the occasional lapse in coverage and spotty run defense — that he offset with big plays.
The first such play came at San Francisco in Week 2, when he shot around the right edge and used one of his 33⅝-inch arms to block a field goal try that teammate Mike Jackson returned for an 86-yard touchdown. By this point, Hurtt had already begun calling Woolen “The Avatar,” a nod to his almost otherworldly blend of physical traits.
“Those arms are what you look for in a pass-rusher,” Hurtt said. “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 became only the third NFL rookie since 2000 to record an interception in four straight games. One of them was a 40-yard pick-six at the Detroit Lions in Week 4. He reached a top speed of 21.58 mph on the return, the seventh-fastest recorded time of any ball carrier this season, according to Next Gen Stats.
Woolen realizes now that the position switch he initially fought ended up putting him on a path to stardom. He and Wilson hadn’t parted ways on good terms, but Woolen decided to send his former coach a text last month.
“Everything that I wanted to do, being an NFL football player, is happening,” Woolen said. “So I just told him thank you, and he appreciated it.”
SHERMAN DOESN’T LIKE to partake in what’s become a popular comparison, preferring instead to give Woolen his own lane. But the similarities between them make it impossible to see Woolen without thinking of Sherman.
They share the same long, angular build that Carroll has always sought in a press corner. They were drafted in the same round, one pick apart. They enjoyed the same early success; Sherman picked off four passes in 10 starts as a rookie. And they both began their college careers as wide receivers.
Early in training camp, Carroll saw Woolen’s offensive background helping him at corner the same way Sherman’s used to. Having run the same routes he was now defending, Woolen could recognize a split second sooner where the receiver might be breaking.
But no one would’ve figured Woolen for an ex-receiver based on his hands.
“When we first got here in rookie minicamp and going through OTAs and whatnot, he couldn’t catch a cold in Alaska,” Hurtt said. “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 the reasons he has taken such a drastic leap forward since college is because the NFL work week affords him more time to refine his game than he had while juggling football with school. The work he has done on his hands is the perfect example.
Woolen began joining Seahawks receivers in their post-practice routines, catching footballs fired from a Jugs machine and tennis balls bounced off a wall. He also developed a routine with No. 3 quarterback Sean Mannion, asking him to throw him a pass as he is running back to the defensive huddle in between every play in practice.
Woolen’s six interceptions are four more than he had in 20 college games at cornerback. He has thanked Mannion after each one.
“He’s come full circle,” Hurtt said of Woolen. “It’s not just the talent, but it’s the work ethic.”
It’s one thing to have the physical tools. It’s another thing, Sherman said, to put them all to use at the moment of truth, when a cornerback has to decide in a fraction of a second whether to make the safe play or to go for the big play.
At the New Orleans Saints in Week 5, Woolen went for it.
Seattle’s defensive call on a second-and-14 play in the third quarter did not give him any safety help over the top, which meant Woolen’s first responsibility was to cover the deep ball. The cushion that a corner has to give the receiver in that situation usually leaves him vulnerable to an out route. But when Tre’Quan Smith sprinted off the line and broke toward the sideline after 15 yards, Woolen got there in time to pick 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 said. “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’ve been coaching the secondary for a million years. If I could find the coverage where a guy can cover the deep ball and the out routes, I would call it every snap. It doesn’t 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’s not thinking about the downside of it, so there’s not that hesitation,” Sherman said. “He’s just believing in what he sees, and that’s really cool. That’s the hard part about the league. That’s what separates good players from great players and Hall of Fame players, is that inhibition, that seed of doubt that, ‘Hey, they could do this.’ … But if you never think about that doubt, then you just believe what you see. You put your foot in the ground 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’s grown a lot since OTAs and minicamp and then training camp; he took a lot of big steps,” Sherman said. “It’s just everything you would hope for in terms of his development and his evolution, in terms of mental and physical and kind of just evolving as a corner in the National Football League.”