Last season, the Dallas Cowboys expected third-round pick Jalen Tolbert to be a major contributor to their offense. After trading Amari Cooper to the Cleveland Browns, the Cowboys needed Tolbert to step up and make some plays alongside CeeDee Lamb -- especially considering Michael Gallup was working his way back from an ACL tear.
That did not happen. Tolbert was inactive for Week 1, beaten out for a spot on the active roster by undrafted free agent Dennis Houston, who was later waived. In all, Tolbert ended up appearing in just eight games, totaling only 89 offensive snaps, and he caught just two of three passes thrown his way for 12 total yards.
Tolbert was working from behind throughout the offseason, even before he sustained an injury that knocked him out for parts of OTAs and training camp.
"I was not playing fast in practice, because you're moving around from one spot to another spot, and then maybe I'm not as comfortable at that one spot or not as comfortable in what's gonna be called in the headset," Tolbert said, per our former CBS Sports colleague Patrik Walker, writing for the Cowboys' official website.
"So, I hear it and now I'm thinking about splits, I'm thinking about the coverage, thinking about what to run and the depth of the route; and all of that. You're in your head doing all of that and you're supposed to be playing [like it's all] second nature. And, obviously, if you're thinking, you're not gonna be able to play as fast as you want. Now when I hear something I'm able to just line up, know what's going on, look at the coverage, jump out of my shoes and go make a play."
Coming into Year 2, Tolbert feels much more well-prepared. There are two reasons for that, according to the man from South Alabama himself: a gift from quarter Dak Prescott and some lessons from newly acquired wideout Brandin Cooks.
"During the season, it was kind of hard to put it [behind] me," he said. "After the season, I actually had time to sit down and I read a book called 'Relentless by Tim Grover' -- Dak bought it for me. I read it and highlighted. I looked at how other guys deal with obstacles mentally. I went home, and to the Senior Bowl, saw all my family, friends and people in school and it reverted me to being that dude. I rewatched the stuff I did in college and then Dak hit me about running routes, and we jumped straight into it. Been working and building on that ever since. This offseason, I flushed  and I'm ready for ."
Tolbert's offseason worth ethic has stood out to Dallas Cowboys wide receivers coach Robert Prince like the Texas sun in the middle of summer.
"JT has really attacked this offseason," Prince told CBS Sports Thursday. "He's done a tremendous job. When the players have been allowed to come in the building, he's been in the building. He's also had a chance to talk to CeeDee [Lamb], and he's really been on Brandin's [Cooks] hip learning from him. You can see the improvement. He's not out there thinking as much. He's playing with more speed and greater physicality."
Tolbert has more players in front of him on the depth chart this year than he did a year ago thanks to the acquisition of Cooks, but he thinks the veteran's presence is nonetheless going to be a positive for him both this year and in the future.
"I'm excited to be able to jump into Year 2 and get back to the dude that I was in college that got me here," he said. "I'm confident I can be that guy and more. I started playing football late so I'm still learning to this day, and I'm not even sure where my ceiling is so I'm just excited to continue to keep going and getting with guys like Brandin Cooks -- he's been a big part of this offseason for me. We go eat, we talk ball, we work out together, all the little things. He's been in the league for a while and he's had six 1,000-yard seasons. He's a great receiver and a great vet to have under my belt. We talk and he sees in me what I see as well, and he told me, 'I'm gonna look out for you.' I'm so excited to go with him and learn more about the stuff that he sees."
It's rare for players who were total noncontributors as rookies to become breakout stars, but the Cowboys certainly hope everything works out the way Tolbert sees it happening.