Back when Tariq Woolen was preparing to open his NFL career as a Week 1 starter for the Seahawks, Richard Sherman was a regular around the Virginia Mason Athletic Center leading up to the season opener.
A Seahawks Legend and one of the best players of the past decade, Sherman is a player with whom Woolen shares a lot of similarities—both tall corners were former college receivers who were drafted by Seattle in the fifth-round—so it was a natural fit for Sherman to spend some time dispensing advice to Woolen and fellow rookie corner Coby Bryant after practices and walkthroughs.
One of the most significant messages Sherman passed on to Woolen was that the rookie needed to know how to handle adversity, in part because any rookie in a significant role is going to have his ups and downs, but also because of his particular position. Cornerbacks often play on an island with no help, trying to stay glued to some of the best athletes in the world, so their mistakes are magnified.
"Be prepared for adversity," Sherman recalled telling Woolen early last month. "It never goes like you think it's going to go. Even if you're having your best day, you'll have one of those moments that will make you reconsider everything, especially as a rookie who hasn't been out there and dealt with the ups and downs. I just told him, just be ready to stand on your 10 toes and be ready to come back and prove it again and again and again and again, and never fold out there. That's the hardest part for a young corner, and that's what breaks a lot of young corners is the inability to withstand adversity and overcome."
Here's the thing though, through six games, Woolen really has had a lot of those moments that could potentially break him. Sure, he got beat for a touchdown in Seattle's preseason opener, but then again… preseason. And since the regular season started, Woolen has played so well that he hasn't yet had to fully tap into Sherman's advice. That's not to say mistakes or even bad games aren't coming. They will, that's just the nature of playing cornerback in the NFL. At some point Woolen will get tripped up by some fancy footwork, or he'll misread a play and get beat deep, or he'll mess up a zone coverage assignment that leads to a touchdown—those can and will happen to even the best cornerbacks.
But six games into Woolen's career, those inevitable hard lessons have been minimal as he puts together a start that seemed beyond even the most optimistic expectations for a fifth-round pick who was viewed as an intriguing prospect with a lot of upside, but who was also seen as being raw after converting to cornerback midway through his college career.
Even the always-optimistic Pete Carroll acknowledged that he and general manager John Schneider, "didn't see this coming that it would be this obvious that he could play this early," when they selected Woolen last spring. "But he's just taken to it. It's the merging of his background and all that and the way we talked, the stuff that we do fits him perfectly for his makeup and all. And he's just been so receptive, and you guys have seen him, he's really easy to communicate with, he's got a great mind on him that allows him to be comfortable with the challenges and all. He's not stressed out. He's having the time of his life and he'll wake up at the end of the season and figure out what happened."
What's happened so far has been Woolen authoring one of the best stories of this Seahawks season. Woolen, who was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week for Week 6, has recorded an interception in four straight games, the first rookie to do so since 2010, and has also recovered fumbles in each of the past two. In Week 2, he added a blocked field goal that was returned for a touchdown by fellow cornerback Mike Jackson.
In addition to being tied for the league lead in interceptions, Woolen is also allowing a passer rating of just 36.9 when targeted as the nearest defender, per NFL Next Gen Stats, the fourth lowest passer rating allowed by an NFL cornerback. An interception a week likely isn't sustainable, but if Woolen keeps up a high level of play, he'll be a legitimate candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year and Pro-Bowl honors.
It's the kind of play that has made not just teammates and Seahawks fans take notice, but also people around the league. Multiple Cardinals players, including All-Pro safety Budda Baker, sought out Woolen after Sunday's game to praise his play. On Twitter, four-time Pro-Bowl cornerback Darius Slay gave a shout out to Woolen, as did Dallas linebacker Micah Parsons, last year's Defensive Rookie of the Year who also earned first-team All-Pro honors last year. And while his new job with Amazon's Thursday Night Football has kept Sherman away from the Seahawks of late, he's been one of Woolen's biggest supporters on social media.
"It's cool, because even though you are on different teams, it is still like a brotherhood because you stay connected," he said. "And just seeing Darius Slay and Micah Parsons and different players like Trevon Diggs and stuff like that reach out, it's cool because you are actually turning heads out here."
Other than appreciating that acknowledgment from some of the league's elite defensive players, Woolen doesn't feel like much has changed.
"I mean I just stay level-headed," he said. "You never really get too high or too low. You just got to be the same person through it all."
But getting back to Sherman's early advice to Woolen, what happens when the inevitable bumps in the road come up? Well, having Sherman as a resource will certainly help, but more than anything Woolen and his coaches are banking that his laid-back demeanor—the one some teams brought up as a criticism at the NFL scouting combine—will help him keep his cool, just as it is currently helping on a play-to-play basis, while also helping him avoid the trappings of buying into his early hype.
"Some people don't like the fact that he is laid back," defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt said. "I think part of the reason why he doesn't panic when the ball is in the air, what a lot of DBs do, they start throwing their head all over the place and they grab and hold. It's because they get frantic. I think the laid-back personality, the cool confidence that he has, you see it in his play as well. That's not always a negative.
"You better have amnesia because you are going to get beat sometimes. On his very first throw at him in professional football, he got beat for a touchdown on a mistake (in the preseason opener). If you get a guy who kind of over the top, highly emotional in that position, you don't know how he is going to respond. He just put it behind him and kept pushing forward. You have to have amnesia. Things are going to happen sometimes, people are going to catch the football. There are great receivers in this league, great quarterbacks in this league, so bad stuff will happen from time to time. The test to me of the character and how great he can be is how do you rebound off of that? I think that is a great trait for him to have."
Woolen wasn't always as even-keeled on the field as he is now, particularly when he played receiver before UTSA's then head coach, Frank Wilson, suggested a position change.
"In college, in my early years when I was a receiver, that's what it kind of was like, up and down," Woolen said. "As I got older, in my senior year of college, it just went ahead and started to (even out) a little bit because you start to understand why coaches do what they do and you start to understand yourself and you self-evaluate like, 'ok, this is what I can do, and this is what I need to work on', and stuff like that. And then now, it just carried on through here and I just try to be chill about everything, stay calm, and just keep a positive mindset through it all."
With that positive mindset, not to mention some outstanding play and freakish athletic ability, Woolen has exceeded just about everyone's expectations for what he would do as a rookie, except perhaps his own.
"I know that hard work never goes unnoticed and if you just keep coming to work, keep doing what you are doing, and are willing to get better, something great is willing to happen," he said. "I'm just making strides in the right direction and I'm just keeping a positive mind frame. I stay a positive person no matter how bad things get, so I just try to have a positive mindset, and knowing that having that mindset and knowing that you will get better, the sky is the limit."
The Seahawks face the Chargers at SoFi Stadium for Week 7 of the 2022 season. Take a look back at photos from the past games between the two teams.