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Seahawks Tariq Woolen vs. Jets Sauce Gardner: Star Rookies to 'Go at It'?

Two of the NFL's brightest young cornerbacks are set to square off Sunday as Tariq Woolen's Seattle Seahawks host Sauce Gardner and the New York Jets ... but is there already a budding rivalry between the two?

There are just two rookies slated to participate in the 2023 Pro Bowl - Seattle Seahawks cornerback Tariq Woolen and New York Jets corner Sauce Gardner.

And during the voting process, Gardner voiced his displeasure with the results that showed him some 20,000 votes behind Woolen, asking his home fans "how are y'all letting this happen?" in a since-deleted tweet.

It's the unlikeliest of rivalries ... but is it really a rivalry?

Gardner was selected No. 4 overall in April's draft, waiting some 45 minutes to hear his name called after the event officially kicked off. He was coming off a stellar season at the University of Cincinnati, where he was a consensus All-American selection and earned conference defensive player of the year honors on a team that made the College Football Playoff.

Woolen, conversely, sat through two nights of the draft and much of the third, finally hearing his name called at No. 153 overall. Just two years removed playing receiver, Woolen was merely an all-conference honorable mention during his senior season at the University of Texas-San Antonio, rising to stardom after running a 4.26 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine.

Apart from their size (Gardner's 6-3, Woolen's 6-4) and length (both 33 and a half-inch arms), there's little in common between the two - except they've both had outstanding rookie campaigns.

Woolen's tied for the league lead in interceptions with six while quarterbacks have completed just 27 of 51 passes (53 percent) in his direction, totaling 319 yards. He's also tied for fourth in passes defended at 14 and added two fumble recoveries, giving him eight takeaways through 15 games.

Gardner's found success in a different way, earning high marks for his ability to blanket opposing receivers in man coverage. Still, he's starred at the catch point, leading the league with 16 passes defended while tacking on two interceptions.

As two of the brightest young stars at their respective positions, there's something of a natural competition brewing between Gardner and Woolen, whose teams are set to square off Sunday for the first time.

But according to Gardner, the competition - or rivalry - is driven by the fans, as he has plenty of respect for what Woolen's accomplished this season.

"(Woolen's) been doing his thing," Gardner said. ""I be seeing on social media, they been wanting us to go at it. I had made a tweet, it was like I didn't want to say his name with the Pro Bowl situation. But he's a great player. I feel like Seahawks fans be trying to make it something it's not."

As just two of eight cornerbacks selected for the event, Woolen and Gardner are confirmed rookie stars ... but there's no bad blood between them.

The same can be said for Gardner and Seattle's other rookie corner, Coby Bryant. They were teammates at Cincinnati, with Bryant, not Gardner, netting the Jim Thorpe Award annually given to college football's premiere corner.

And while Bryant isn't Pro Bowl bound like the others, he's in the midst of a strong season of his own, logging five starts in 15 games and ranking third in the league in forced fumbles with four.

If it weren't for Woolen's breakout, Bryant's numbers would be considerably more appreciated as a solid year for the No. 109 pick, but he's taken a backseat in Seattle's secondary.

Nonetheless, Bryant's largely exceeded expectations - and he might be in line to receive something special from Gardner following Sunday's game.

"Coby, that's my dawg," Gardner said. "We're locked in forever. I don't really be doing jersey swaps, but I feel like he's gonna be somebody I do a jersey swap with. That's gonna happen."

Ultimately, whether it's his college teammate or biggest rival for defensive rookie of the year, Gardner's outlook is unchanged - and he believes Seattle's in good hands for years to come.

"Those are two great players," said Gardner.

Woolen's Seahawks are set to kick off at 1:05 p.m. Pacific inside Lumen Field against Gardner's Jets, in what could be a playoff elimination game for both sides ... and while it'll be the first matchup between the two Pro Bowlers, they won't have to wait long to see each other again.

You can follow Daniel Flick on Twitter @DFlickDraft

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