FRISCO, Texas -- Hop in a time machine and take it back to the 2022 offseason. The Dallas Cowboys had traded four-time Pro Bowl receiver Amari Cooper to the Cleveland Browns in exchange for a couple late-round picks, and veteran Michael Gallup was easing his way back into action after a late-season ACL tear in 2021.
These developments created a clear need at the wide receiver position for the Silver and Blue, so they used their third-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft on South Alabama wide receiver Jalen Tolbert, a 6-foot- inch tall receiver who weighed 195 pounds while running a 4.49 official 40-yard dash with a 36-inch vertical jump. The 2022 third-round pick was expected to contribute immediately as a rookie last season because the Cowboys needed him to.
That wasn't the case. Tolbert was a healthy scratch in Week 1 after losing a spot on the active roster to the undrafted Dennis Houston, who was later released. He also dealt with a hamstring injury during the year. In all, Tolbert had only 89 offensive snaps in eight games played as a rookie, and he caught just two of three passes thrown his way for 12 yards.
"I think you have to handicap every player in the NFL," Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones said Tuesday. "You might say an NFL season is two-and-a-half college seasons. So, you come in as a freshman and come out in the equivalent of your junior year of college. I don't know about you, but that seemed like an eternity for me. That was a long time. You got to know that a player, if he has the chance to, is going to get better as the year and the games go along. So you should handicap and plan for that in your 53. On the other hand, you can anticipate injury and you can anticipate veteran players that can have different issues as the season goes on. So this no man's land of trying to see here at training camp of what you're going to be looking at in February and January in the playoffs, that's a smooth moving target. Everybody has to deal with it though. Given repetition, there are very few players if they got repetition and game experience, which is precious stuff, shouldn't and wouldn't be better young players if they played all year."
If you hop back out of the time machine today, you'll discover Tolbert has made the most of his reps, both in the weight room and on the field, since Cowboys COO and EVP Stephen Jones now describes Tolbert as a player living up to his potential.
"Yeah, I think Tolbert is a perfect example of this," Stephen Jones said Tuesday. "I mean, some guys walk in, you know, I don't want to harp on like [DeMarvion Overshown], but but you know,. Then, you got a guy like Tolbert who ended up needing a little time and then you get a veteran in the room with him like a [Brandin] Cooks and now we're seeing what we drafted [in the third round]. "
Just like Tolbert's emergence, wide receiver Brandin Cooks is a 2023 offseason development for the Cowboys. Dallas acquired the 29-year-old veteran in exchange for a 2023 fifth-round pick and a 2024 sixth-round pick. That's a strong piece of business for an NFC contender like the Cowboys to add a player like Cooks, whose six career seasons of at least 1,000 receiving yards are tied for the third-most in the NFL since he entered the league in 2014, trailing only Buccaneers wideout Mike Evans (nine seasons) and Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (seven) in that statistic. He wasn't asked to mentor Tolbert, but he's gone out of his way to be a sounding board an effort to assist in elevating the young receiver's game.
"I'm a big fan of Brandin, and the speed is evident, but just watch the way he works in practice," Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimerat the end of Cowboys minicamp back on June 8. "Jalen Tolbert has had an incredible camp, and if you talk to Jalen, what Jalen is going to tell you is he spent a ton of time with Brandin. So, here's a guy that's been there and done that and what Brandin wants to do, in addition to coming in and learning a system, is he wants to encourage and invest in the younger guys. So those guys spend a lot of time together. I see them before practice, in the weight room working together. So what Brandin brings us is way more than just speed, absolutely. It's really fun to watch him run whether it's deep routes or short routes, it really doesn't matter, but what I love is the competitor in the way he is encouraging that entire room of receivers. It's been awesome."
However, Cooks refused to take credit for Tolbert's offseason growth when asked about mentoring the second-year player.
"It's huge," Cooks said Tuesday when describing Tolbert's growth this offseason. "When you get to the years that I've gotten in his game [entering his 10th NFL season in 2023], not only do you want to continue to perform and help your team win on the field, but at the same time you want to help lead and bring those younger guys up, to be able to play big time football. What I see in JT, he has it. It's nothing I've done, it's just the reassurance of 'hey, go out there play fast, be confident, and there's a reason why you're here.' He's taken care of the rest. He put the work in all offseason. I didn't do anything."
Tolbert's production through two games this preseason showcases that work: six catches for 95 yards and his first career NFL touchdown, 17-yard scoring strike from Cowboys third-string quarterback Will Grier in the second quarter of Dallas' preseason opener against the AFC South champion Jacksonville Jaguars.
"I'm just building on what I've been trying to build on the whole training camp, obviously just continuing to grow, build that confidence and play fast, " Jalen Tolbert said Saturday in Seattle after a four-catch, 66-yard night against the Seahawks. "It was fun to go out there and compete, show what I can do."
Thanks to his two preseason performances and the continued positive feedback he has received from his teammates and coaches, Tolbert can safely say his confidence, one of the most important attributes for any athlete, is back.
"It's [my confidence] has always been there, but I just had to regain my mental state, regain my confidence," Tolbert said. "Knowing where I'm supposed to be and what I'm to be doing allows me to play fast, physical and confident, which also helps. It's just going out there and being myself. It's definitely there and continually improving as I continue to grow, practice, and do things on and off the field, it's just growing and growing."
His four catches on Saturday were double his 2022 regular season total, two that went for 12 yards, another sign of Tolbert's progression in the right direction.
"It was fun and important to go out there and keep stacking days," Tolbert said. "Everyone loves the reps they are able to get, so it's just continuing to grow on whatever they feel like the have to grow on. We do a lot in practice and after practice to help a lot of guys with the signals and aspects of the new offense that we have."
Between his in-game production and what Tolbert has produced on the practice field in training camp, the front office feels comfortable pronouncing Tolbert as the team's number four wideout behind 2022 Second-Team All-Pro CeeDee Lamb, Cooks, and Gallup.
"Tolbert has locked down that fourth [receiver] spot and certainly shown that he can be very productive for us, and [quarterback] Dak [Prescott] is very comfortable with him," Stephen Jones said. "So you know, that third round pick has turned into something that we felt like we were going to have, obviously last year, it was slow. He wasn't quite ready yet and didn't get the playing time that he would have liked, but every player is going to be different. And just because they don't necessarily make it in the first year, and it may be because of extenuating circumstances, depth in front of him. That's part of it. We draft these guys and for the most part if you use tags and things like that, we have them for sure for four years and sometimes for five. It's a long haul in terms of looking at young guys."
Head coach Mike McCarthy pumped the brakes a little bit on the younger Jones' definitive depth chart statement on Tolbert, citing the need to rotate a number of different players through his offensive personnel groupings and formations.
"I'm not really there with depth charts, I couldn't tell you what one looked like, and that's a PR thing frankly," Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said Tuesday. "Jalen is doing a heck of a job, and I'm proud of the strides he has made because you don't line up with 11 starters in this league. We're going to play as many personnel groupings as we possibly can, and at the end of the day, we line up against the Giants [in Week 1 on September 10] with the 48 players that are active. That will dictate plays and where they're at, not the depth chart. I clearly understand where Stephen was coming from, but I have bigger numbers in my head right now."
One reason McCarthy isn't caught off guard by Tolbert's emergence is because he has been fully aware of the 24-year-old's drive to make it in the NFL. That awareness specifically dates back to when the two held private one-on-one meetings to go over the playbook over the course of the 2022 season.
"We were counting on it [Tolbert's emergence]," McCarthy said. "We were never down on JT, so this is no surprise. When you come in the door, you have expectations and you give them opportunities but things happen. Maybe it doesn't go as quickly as you would like. I'm more satisfied for him because I know how much pressure he puts on himself and how important it is to him. I go back to last year as a rookie where I had opportunities to meet with him privately on back-to-back Sunday nights. I've seen his playbook. I've seen the detail that he puts into this too. It's all part of the development. Everyone has a little different storyline. Last year, he was trying so far to do it right by the letter of the law and the way [the play] was drawn. Now, he's playing football and not just running the lines. He has a full understanding, instincts, awareness, all of that. It's a credit to him and all the extra time these guys play together."
McCarthy's assessment of how Tolbert is playing, freely and able to just play instead of overanalyzing every move he makes, was the receiver's biggest takeaway from the best game of his young career last week against the Seahawks.
"My takeaways [from preseason Week 2] are play speed -- being able to play faster than everybody else -- , being decisive on my reads or adjustments, or what I think I should do, not thinking too much and just trying to be comfortable and confident," Tolbert said. Just [need] to continue to grow on that."
Thanks to all the work Tolbert has poured into the 2023 offseason and the fruit of his labor he has received from his efforts so far have him feeling like he's in a more simple time: riding high off a First-Team All-Sun Belt Conference nomination after breaking South Alabama's single-season, all-time records for catches (82) and receiving yards (1,474) at the end of his junior season in 2021.
"I feel like I'm back to how I felt when I was in college coming out," Tolbert said. "It's just continuing to grow on that. You can always get better at every aspect of being a receiver, so that's the goal. Just continue to grow and not be stuck where I'm at. Just continue to grow on what I've done and continue to improve any way I can."
Like Tolbert, Jerry Jones feels much better where the third-round pick stands in 2023 than he did in 2022.
"I feel better about drafting him where we drafted him a year ago," Jerry Jones said. "I remember the big debate that went on when we were drafting him. Much of it revolved around his professionalism. That was one of the things that surprised us about him not hitting the ground running. Normally, you wouldn't expect a receiver to come in at his position and be that big of a contributor immediately unless he was someone like a CeeDee Lamb."
Tolbert now has a chance to join Lamb, Cooks, and Gallup in a number of McCarthy's personnel groups in 2023, something he doesn't take for granted after watching the majority of the 2022 season from the sidelines.
"It's special," Tolbert said of his opportunity to bounce back with the Cowboys. "I know it's there, I just had to put it all together and regain my confidence this offseason. So, it's just being myself and going out there being fast, physical and confident."