On Thursday, the Seattle Seahawks made NFL history with a draft class that has already been established as one of the best in franchise history. Head coach/shotcaller Pete Carroll, general manager John Schneider, and Seattle’s personnel staff hit on five early impact starters in offensive tackles Charles Cross and Abe Lucas, running back Kenneth Walker, and cornerbacks Coby Bryant and Tariq Woolen. As rookie pass-rusher Boye Mafe is starting to announce his presence with authority, you could argue that the Seahawks will have six indispensable players in one draft class by season’s end.
That is a historic haul, to say the least. So, this week, it wasn’t a huge surprise when the Seahawks became the first team in league history to have an Offensive Rookie of the Month in Walker, and a Defensive Rookie of the Month in Woolen.
In Woolen’s case, the fifth-rounder from the University of Texas at San Antonio had 19 tackles, five passes defensed, three interceptions (including a 40-yard interception return for a touchdown) and two fumble recoveries across five games (Weeks 4-8) in October. He was the only player in the league with multiple interceptions and multiple fumble recoveries during the month.
Woolen has become a true lockdown cornerback sooner than just about anybody could have expected, but was he the best defensive rookie in October, Was he even the best rookie cornerback in October? There is an equivalent case to be made for Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner of the New York Jets. The fourth overall pick out of Cincinnati obviously cost the Jets a lot more than Woolen cost the Seahawks in terms of draft capital and actual money, but he’s playing to or beyond the level expected.
So, who should have been the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month: Sauce Gardner or Tariq Woolen? Let’s get into the tape and the metrics.
Tariq Woolen was more of an opportunist.
(Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports
Woolen’s coverage numbers in October were great. He allowed 14 catches on 24 targets for 187 yards, 64 yards after the catch, one touchdown, those three interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 57.5. The NFL tends to overvalue interceptions when assigning value to cornerbacks, and that can be a huge mistake — there are cornerbacks throughout NFL history whose picks have been more the product of luck than design.
Woolen is not one of those cornerbacks; his three interceptions in October were all legit. This pick-six against the Detroit Lions in Week 4 was a great example of his ability to read and run with routes, and his ball skills. Tight end T.J. Hockenson thought he had Woolen on the crosser, but Woolen used his timing, pace, and closing speed to nab the ball away.
Sauce Gardner was more of an island shutdown expert.
(Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports)
Woolen had three interceptions in the month of October to Gardner’s one, but before we lock everything up for Woolen in the month, we should examine how amazing Gardner was in his five games. He allowed 12 catches on 32 targets for 55 yards, 35 yards after the catch, no touchdowns, that one pick, and an opponent passer rating of 33.4. That opponent passer rating was the lowest allowed by any cornerback in the month of October — not just among rookies, but among all cornerbacks.
He also got Pro Football Focus to change his grade after Week 8, which is a nice feather in his cap.
— Will Parkinson (@Willpa11) November 1, 2022
That Week 8 game against the Patriots saw Gardner get targeted three times, officially allowing two catches for (no, this is not a typo) minus -4 yards, and two yards after the catch (which is incorrect). Each of the two catches he allowed produced minus -2 yards. PFF left the yardage (five) on the touchdown play Gardner mentioned in his stats, but as Gardner intimated, this wasn’t his fault.
The Jets were in Cover-0, and Gardner was pressing the leverage of tight end Hunter Henry outside right. When receiver Jakobi Meyers motioned from the backfield to the slot, safety LaMarcus Joyner was late to pick it up (you can see linebacker C.J. Mosly frantically waving to Joyner as the motion began), and Gardner pulled off his man to try and save the play.
I'm giving the slight edge to Sauce.
(AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
Gardner was right in asking for a retraction, and he’s also justified in any frustration he may have today with the NFL’s focus on interceptions, as opposed to quality of play, when it comes to cornerbacks. Several of Gardner’s pass breakups in October could have just as easily been interceptions, and were that the case, the Defensive Rookie of the Month discussion looks entirely different. Watch this coverage against Romeo Doubs of the Green Bay Packers in Week 6, and it’s pretty clear why Gardner felt comfortable wearing a cheesehead on his way out of Lambeau Field.
When I watched Gardner’s college tape with Richard Sherman before the draft, one thing Sherm mentioned to me as possibly the only minor ding on Gardner’s game is that he’d like to see Gardner go after the ball more, as opposed to just defending the receiver.
It’s something Gardner is still working to perfect, and it may have cost him this particular monthly award, but when you look at the whole picture, Sauce Gardner wasn’t just the best rookie cornerback in the month of October.
Sauce Gardner was the best cornerback in the entire NFL.