With Multiple Rookies Poised to Start, Seahawks' Youth Movement Ahead of Schedule – Sports Illustrated

RENTON, Wash. – Ever since the Seahawks capped off their nine-player draft class in April, expectations have been sky high for the group entering a new era for the franchise. After all, general manager John Schneider made four picks in the top 72 after trading quarterback Russell Wilson to the Broncos, the first time he had that many top-75 picks at his disposal in a single draft.
But with the regular season now less than three weeks away and a visit from Wilson and his new team looming on September 12, somehow, Seattle's new crop of rookies have blown those expectations out of the water. While coach Pete Carroll hasn't named starters at several positions, at least three players from the nine-member class look poised to start in Week 1 and several others should contribute right away in reserve or special teams roles.
In the case of Charles Cross, who the Seahawks nabbed with the No. 9 overall pick acquired in the Wilson trade, he's been penned in as a starter protecting the blind side since he put on his draft cap and shook hands with commissioner Roger Goodell on stage in Las Vegas. Though he has struggled with penalties in the preseason, he locked down Bears star pass rusher Robert Quinn in the second exhibition contest and has been as good as advertised in pass protection thus far.
“He is not a kid who is going to get waivered," Carroll said of Cross' response to drawing five penalties against Chicago. "He’s very solid, grounded well, pretty quiet. You know, he doesn’t say a whole lot, but I think he’s in good shape. Once he realized who he played against last week, I think it helped him. He didn’t know and nobody told him until after the game, so I think that helped him.”
But while Cross arrived as an instant day one starter, third-round pick Abraham Lucas entered his first training camp with Seattle on the second-string offense behind Jake Curhan, who started the final five regular season games as an undrafted rookie a year ago. Early on, the incumbent appeared to have the edge thanks to that experience, starting each of the first two preseason games while seeing the majority of first-team reps on the practice field as well.
However, even with Curhan playing well in his own right and not losing the job with his efforts, Lucas' sheer athleticism, pass protecting prowess, and unexpected proficiency racking up pancakes in the run game during preseason games has helped him vault to the top of the depth chart. He's been the first-team right tackle in each of the three practices this week leading up to Friday's final dress rehearsal in Dallas, suggesting he's the favorite to start against Denver.
Not surprisingly, Carroll has been most encouraged by Lucas' stellar performance as a run blocker after rarely playing out of a three-point stance in pass-happy Air Raid and Run N' Shoot offenses at Washington State.
"Abe has shown in the running game, one of the big questions coming off of the team that he came from and the philosophy that he came from. He’s getting off of the ball and playing the running game well," Carroll assessed. "He has been particularly effective on the backside and he has some really stellar blocks. He is not having any trouble making this transition. He’s deep into the competition of it, so I’m really fired up about that.”
If Cross and Lucas both started in the opener for the Seahawks as expected, they will make history as the third rookie tackle tandem to start a regular season opener in the NFL since the 1970 merger. Over the previous 51 seasons, only the 1982 Phoenix Cardinals and 2009 Jacksonville Jaguars dared to throw two rookie tackles into the fire in Week 1.
But while Lucas' ascent to day one starter may be a pleasant surprise, nobody could have foreseen the rapid ascent of cornerback Tariq Woolen, whose outstanding first training camp has positioned the fifth-round pick out of UTSA to start immediately in Seattle's secondary.
Despite boasting a rare blend of size (6-foot-4), length (33 1/2-inch arms), and athleticism (4.26 40-yard dash, 42-inch vertical jump), Woolen entered the pre-draft process this past spring viewed as a talented, yet raw prospect who wouldn't be ready to play on defense right away. He started his college career as a receiver before transitioning to corner two years ago and was widely considered a long-term project due to his inexperience and lack of technical refinement.
Since reporting for rookie minicamp in May, however, Woolen has obliterated that narrative and then some. He quickly made a strong impression on Carroll by locking down speedy receiver Marquise Goodwin on multiple vertical routes during an OTA practice in June and picked up where he left off in training camp, registering several pass breakups in the first three practices while playing with the second-team defense.
Winning his share of matchups against former All-Pro receiver DK Metcalf in practice, Woolen has capitalized on an injury to veteran corner Artie Burns over the past couple of weeks, performing at a high level with the first-team defense. He produced a pair of pass breakups in Seattle's mock scrimmage, made a special interception against Drew Lock in the the middle of the field that drew rave reviews from Carroll, and rebounded from a difficult debut to turn in an excellent outing against the Bears last week.
While Woolen didn't allow a single completion on three targets in Thursday's loss and showed substantial improvement as a tackler compared to the preseason opener in Pittsburgh, a phenomenal pass rushing effort chasing after quarterback Justin Fields caught the attention of Seahawks defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt.
"He was coming off the edge in the Chicago game and I know that Justin Fields can fly, I think he’s a 4.41 kid," Hurtt gushed. "To see the closing speed from Tariq on that, he’s an avatar. He’s different, you create guys like him in the video games. He has a unique skillset.”
Like Carroll, Hurtt isn't ready to publicly name Woolen as a starter just yet. With Burns returning to practice this week, it's possible Seattle could still opt for experience going against Wilson in Week 1.
But with Sidney Jones still dealing with concussion-related symptoms, Burns actually jumped back into the lineup at left cornerback with Woolen across from him with the first-team defense in Wednesday's practice. Reading between the lines, Hurtt seems confident in the rookie's readiness to play right away and while he knows he's going to be targeted frequently if he does start, he's not worried about how he will handle those challenges after what he's seen from him in practice.
“The talent is undeniable," Hurtt said of Woolen. "He has that and he has had production when he has played in practice and things of that nature. We know that it is going to happen, and he is going to go through some of those transitions. That was the beginning of the Pittsburgh game, they are going to challenge you at corner, that is part of it. That is my responsibility, to be able to help out with the calls with the young guys as they work their way through it.
"I do know this, we all feel confident that he’s going to win a lot more of the battles than he is ever going to lose. We feel that good about him."
Come September 12, Woolen may not be the only rookie playing extensive reps in Seattle's secondary. After thriving early in his first camp at left cornerback, fourth-round pick Coby Bryant recently transitioned inside to the nickel role and suddenly finds himself in a heated competition against veteran Justin Coleman, who re-signed with the team in March as a free agent.
Though he lacks the rare athletic and physical tools Woolen possesses, Bryant won the Jim Thorpe Award as college football's best defensive back as a senior. Incredibly instinctive with receiver-caliber hands, he picked off nine passes and amassed 25 pass breakups over his final four seasons at Cincinnati, consistently putting up big numbers while frequently being targeted by opposing quarterbacks due to the presence of future top-five pick Sauce Gardner across from him.
Those traits have been evident throughout Bryant's first three months as a Seahawk, as he has gotten his hands on the ball for numerous pass breakups, including several stellar plays to deny touchdowns during red zone situations. Those plays at practice have carried over into games, as he punched a ball out of a receiver's hands in the end zone last Thursday night to erase a potential touchdown on a slot fade.
Even with his limited experience in the nickel – Bryant admitted to reporters after Thursday's game he hadn't played the position in college – he has looked like a natural playing inside over the past couple of weeks. Citing his awareness and feel for the game, Hurtt sees him as a great fit for the role and kept the door open for him to potentially win the job out of the gate with another strong outing against the Cowboys.
“There are a lot of different things going on between run fits, he has to blitz, the motions, do I bump, or do I travel with motion?" Hurtt explained. "There is so much stuff going on. You guys have heard me say numerous times with Coby, he is a very intelligent guy, so that helps things a lot for him. He can tackle, he can blitz well, he can cover, he has short area quickness, and he has all of the skillset that allows you to be a successful nickel. Obviously, now he is still learning and feeling that stuff out, but he is doing a nice job of picking it up quickly.”
Looking at the rest of Seattle's draft class, second-round picks Ken Walker III and Boye Mafe have flashed in their first training camps and while both players currently are recovering from hernia and shoulder injuries respectively, it's possible each will be available for the season opener and see significant playing time as reserves. Seventh-round picks Bo Melton and Dareke Young also remain in the mix for roster spots at receiver and could contribute on offense and special teams early.
Much to the delight of Carroll and Schneider, it's possible seven or even eight of Seattle's nine draft picks could play snaps on offense and defense in Week 1. That's a major development for a youth movement progressing well ahead of schedule.
Like all rookies, Cross, Lucas, Woolen, and the rest of the Seahawks incoming class will face a different animal when the bullets start flying in NFL regular season games next month. They will deal with trials and tribulations, with the rookie tackles drawing tough battles against the likes of Bradley Chubb, Randy Gregory, and Nick Bosa in the first two weeks alone and the corners set to be tested by Wilson and his bevy of receiving talent right off the bat.
Keeping those matchups in mind, nobody should expect any of Seattle's first-year players to instantly play like Pro Bowl or All-Pro talents. Rookie growing pains will undoubtedly be part of the equation, but those hiccups should serve the players and team well in the long run. If several of those players emerge as viable starters this season, the future will look pretty bright in the Pacific Northwest regardless of win-loss record in 2022.


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