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Tolbert Candid About Rookie Struggle, 2023 Jump

25 May 2023:  Jalen Tolbert (18)    
of the Dallas Cowboys during an OTA  practice at the Ford Center at The Star in Frisco, Texas.   Photo by James D. Smith/Dallas Cowboys
25 May 2023: Jalen Tolbert (18) of the Dallas Cowboys during an OTA practice at the Ford Center at The Star in Frisco, Texas. Photo by James D. Smith/Dallas Cowboys

FRISCO, Texas — It goes without saying that the Cowboys and Jalen Tolbert are both hoping for a better outing from him in Year 2. The former third-round pick (2022) didn't contribute much to the offensive side of the equation as a rookie, and ultimately struggled to make his presence felt on special teams as well. 

To his credit, the 24-year-old has shied away from neither self-awareness nor accountability, readily confessing he had a difficult time getting up to speed mentally in Year 1.

"I could just feel myself not confident, in everything," he openly admitted following the final practice of OTAs. 

This offseason has afforded him a lot of time for reflection and improvement, and he's identified the biggest obstacle to his growth as a rookie was his own mind, and not much more than that.

In other words, he was his own worst enemy at the time.

"Even from [2022 training camp]," Tolbert said, pausing briefly to reflect before continuing. "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. 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."

The latter part of that statement describes the version of Tolbert that earned him honors as Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year (2021) and two separate nods as a First-Team Sun Belt talent (2020, 2021). He amassed 2,559 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns in his final two seasons at South Alabama. 

That was despite being a late-comer to the sport, taking it on full-time later in high school back in his hometown of Mobile, Alabama.

Tolbert physically has all of the tools, and also looks more chiseled than ever, so the only thing that would prevent him from truly challenging for the WR4 role is his mentality going forward. 

"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 [2022] and I'm ready for [2023]."

He flushed it, one of the many lessons he's already learned from newly-acquired wideout Brandin Cooks, someone who is instantly making an impression on Tolbert, and the two have become close as the heat of the summer approaches. 

"Flush it. Flush it," he explained. "[Cooks has] obviously been in the league for a long time, and I was disappointed about last year. I went through what I went through last year and he asked me about it, we talked about it and then he told me to flush it. He said he sees a lot in me, so flush [last year], have fun, continue to grow and take the [Year 2] jump."

It's this type of relationship, along with the ongoing mentorship from both CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup — both letting Tolbert know they suffered the same mental hurdle when they entered the league — that could be the catalyst to Tolbert tapping into his potential this year.

Having spent plenty of time with the top three Cowboys wideouts this offseason, as well as Prescott (that includes catching passes from him at the local high school, in the D4Kyard and at the Cowboys facility in Frisco), Tolbert is all-in on absorbing as much as he can to level up.

"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," said Tolbert, matter-of-factly. "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." 

Simply put, Tolbert is taking none of this for granted — be it the support and/or the opportunity. 

"Having guys like that, that I've never had before in my football career, is positive and big for me and I'm gonna continue to grow off of that," said Tolbert. 

Better still is, as head coach Mike McCarthy also noted recently, that Tolbert is starting to translate all of this onto the field with minicamp and training camp next on the offseason menu.

"Jalen has made some really nice plays, particularly in two-minute situations," said McCarthy.. "I think [he's] ready to make that [Year 2] jump."

That would be great news for a wide receiver room that's engaged in a full-on battle royale for the role of WR4, featuring Tolbert being competitively pitted against Simi Fehoko, amongst others, for the right to see offensive reps behind Lamb, Gallup and Cooks.

As he sharpens his teeth that offseason, he's also champing at the bit to prove himself.

"The strong point of mine in college was high-pointing [the ball] and catch radius, just going up and making plays on the ball, and playing all of the [WR] positions — being able to be versatile and being able to [create] matchup problems," said Tolbert of what he knows he can bring to the table … It's just about being able to be that dude, mentally and physically." 

When the plane touches down on the tarmac in Oxnard in late July, Tolbert will step off of it with a confidence that wasn't present one year ago, and with a support system that truly wants him to be the best version of himself.

He's now mentally reset, physically locked-and-loaded, and asking Father Time to speed up.

"It can't come fast enough," he said.

Ring the bell.

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