Meet ‘The Avatar’: The 6-foot-tall former WR who could lead Seattle’s defensive renaissance
IN A GLANCETariq Woolen went from smile to tears.
The ever-lucky rookie phenom of the Seattle Seahawks stands on the podium inside SoFi Stadium, answering questions about the cornerback’s key play in the road win over the Los Angeles Rams.
Woolen had fed quarterback John Wolford for a deep pass which he picked up for his sixth interception of the season, tying the NFL lead and breaking the franchise’s rookie record previously shared by Earl Thomas and Michael Boulware.
He had two more passes broken up, one that helped seal the win and another where he turned on the jets to close a 4-yard gap against fast wide receiver Tutu Atwell before saving what would have been a long finish, if not a touchdown. .
“A lot of times, when it’s a deep ball,” says Woolen, “I never feel like I’m beaten.”
Then comes the question of who made it.
Asked about how he went from a fifth-round draft pick from the University of Texas at San Antonio to the top of the NFL and franchise leaderboards as a rookie, Woolen rubbed his eyes.
“Dude, I think that’s a blessing. I remember on a draft day, just sitting in the living room,” he said, pausing to wipe the tears off his cheeks. “I don’t want to get too emotional, but I just remember sitting in front of my family, just taking calls from different people. I was just embarrassed because I thought it was a team call because I heard different things. I just saw corners go, corners go, corner goes… And then Day 3 comes.”
Woolen, 23, thought he would 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 weekend-draft slide as motivational fuel to set the league on fire. It’s about how quickly Woolen rose from a project that should have been chosen to be a hawker playmaker and NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year contender.
And he has been a bright spot on a defense reeling 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 further out of the conference playoff picture.
The Seahawks haven’t faced a threat like this since Richard Sherman, who worked with the rookie on his visit to Seahawks training camp and will be part of the Prime Video broadcast crew holding Thursday’s contest.
“He was amazing,” Sherman told ESPN. “He was phenomenal.”
ADDING HIS BREATH inside Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium, Woolen couldn’t believe it.
He has made his second 40-yard run in 4.26 seconds, tied for fourth-fastest in the NFL scouting combine since 2006.
He also recorded a vertical jump of 42 inches. Woolen is the only player since the start of 2006 to run that fast and jump that high on the combine, according to ESPN Stats & Information; and at 6-foot-4⅛, he is tied for the third-tallest cornerback measured over that span.
While Woolen possessed a rare combination of size and physical skill, Seattle coach Pete Carroll said he fell to the fifth round because the college’s inconsistent record also showed a “rough” player, with only two full seasons of experience at cornerback. .
As a level two wide receiver for UTSA in 2019, Woolen doesn’t play much on offense. With the Roadrunners smitten at cornerback late in the season, then-coach Frank Wilson pulled him to the back of the boardroom and proposed a switch, trying to sell him on the chance to see the field.
Woolen was not interested. He’s always been playing offense, and he doesn’t really know how to tackle, nor does he want to. But he reluctantly agreed.
Woolen picked up reps at both positions in training for a few weeks then made his first appearance as cornerback late in the season.
It turned out to be career-changing.
Seahawks defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt and Carroll rode with Woolen from Week 1 as their starting right cornerback, enduring increasing pain – multiple early penalties, occasional lapses in range and spotty run defense – which he balanced out with big plays.
The first such play occurred in San Francisco in Week 2, when he shot around the right bank and used one 33⅝-inch arm to block a field goal attempt that was returned by teammate Mike Jackson for an 86-yard touchdown. By this point, Hurtt had begun calling Woolen “Avatar”, a nod to her almost otherworldly blend of physical traits.
“That arm is what you’re looking for in a pass-rusher,” says Hurtt. “You want guys to have that length that usually chase passers for a living or they cover quarterbacks for a living. He’s out there with the little guys on the scrimmage line, and they can’t even touch his body when he’s long. “
In October, Woolen became the third NFL rookie since 2000 to record interceptions in four straight games. One was a 40-yard pick-six on the Detroit Lions in Week 4. He had a top speed of 21.58 mph on his return, the seventh-fastest time recorded of any ball carrier this season, according to Next Gen Stats.
Woolen now realized that the change in position he initially struggled for had finally put him on the path to stardom. He and Wilson did not part on good terms, but Woolen decided to send his former coach a message last month.
“Everything I wanted to do, to be an NFL football player, was happening,” Woolen said. “So I just told him thank you, and he appreciated it.”
SHERMAN DID NOT LIKE to partake in what has become a popular comparison, preferring to give Woolen her own line. But the similarities between them make it impossible to look at Woolen without thinking about Sherman.
They had the same long, angular bodies that Carroll was always looking for in the press corner. They are drawn in the same round, one pick apart. They enjoyed similar early success; Sherman had four passes in 10 starts as a rookie. And they both started their college career as wide receivers.
Early in training camp, Carroll noticed Woolen’s offensive background assist him in the corner as Sherman always did. After running the same route he now maintains, Woolen was able to recognize a split second quicker where a receiver might be damaged.
But no one mistook Woolen for a former receiver based on his hand.
“When we first got to the rookie minicamp and going through the OTAs and stuff, he couldn’t catch a cold in Alaska,” said Hurtt. “It was rough. He dropped everything, and I’m sitting here watching a movie like, ‘This damn guy, he’s got stone hands.'”
Woolen believes one of the reasons he’s taken such a drastic leap since college is because the NFL work week gives him more time to perfect his game than he did juggling football with school. The work he has done on his hands is a perfect example.
Woolen began joining Seahawks receivers in their post-workout routine, catching shots from Jugs machines and tennis balls bouncing off walls. He also developed a routine with the No. 1 quarterback. 3 Sean Mannion, asked him to feed him as he ran back to the back line between every play in training.
Woolen’s six interceptions were four times as many as he had in 20 collegiate games at cornerback. He thanked Mannion after each one.
“He came full circle,” Hurtt said of Woolen. “It’s not just talent, it’s work ethic.”
Having a physical device is one thing. It’s another thing, says Sherman, to use it all at the right time, when a cornerback has to decide in a split second whether to make a safe play or go for the big game.
At the New Orleans Saints in Week 5, Woolen did just that.
Seattle’s defensive calls in the second and 14th plays of the third quarter didn’t give him any safety relief over the top, meaning Woolen’s first responsibility was covering deep balls. The cushioning that the receiver has to give angle to in that situation usually makes him vulnerable to route out. But when Tre’Quan Smith ran off the line and burst into the sidelines after 15 yards, Woolen got there in time to take it.
“To be able to cover a deep ball – which he is in a position to do that – and come back and have the rhythm and feel to jump those routes as well, that’s a big deal,” said Carroll. “It’s not like he got lucky. It wasn’t what he expected. He just played that route, and he was there and got his foot on the ground and came back and made a great catch with a guy fighting over it…
“I’ve coached high schools for a million years. If I could find scope where a guy could cover both the inside ball and the out route, I’d call it every snap. It doesn’t exist.”
Sherman pointed to the interception as an example of how Woolen uses more than just his physical traits – including situational awareness, route recognition and guts – to play.
“He doesn’t think about the downside, so there’s no doubt,” Sherman said. “He just believes what he sees, and that’s really cool. That’s the hardest part of 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 can do this. .’ … But if you never think about that doubt, then you just believe what you see. You put your feet on the ground and walk away.”
While Woolen has been the Seahawks’ top-flight draftsman in a decade, he has a much longer chance of winning the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award than the favorite, Sauce Gardner cornerback New York Jets. Gardner led the NFL with 16 passes defended, while Woolen was third with 13.
But as Woolen has shown, he can make progress in a hurry.
“He’s come a long way since the OTAs and minicamp and then boot camp; he’s taken a lot of big steps,” said Sherman. “It’s everything you would expect in terms of his development and evolution, in terms of mental and physical and kind of just developing as a corner in the National Football League.”