FRISCO, Texas – Jalen Tolbert is used to being under the radar.
Growing up within a couple hundred miles of national powerhouse programs, the Cowboys third-round draft pick got maybe a dozen scholarship offers out of high school — the biggest from Michigan State just before signing day in 2016. He chose South Alabama in his hometown of Mobile, where he became a two-time all-conference player and one of the best wide receivers in this year's class.
"I've always been overlooked and underrated," he said.
The Cowboys loved Tolbert's production, approach and potential — so much, in fact, that there was legitimate discussion about drafting him in the second round. The club decided on former Ole Miss pass rusher Sam Williams at No. 56 but quickly circled back to Tolbert 32 picks later at No. 88.
Now he'll join a Cowboys receiver group that needed an infusion of new talent, a young player who can step in and contribute.
They're confident he can.
"He's got size (6-1, 194), he's extremely intelligent and the type of player you want to grow in that room because of his intelligence," said Will McClay, Cowboys vice president of player personnel. "… The upside is that because he's an NFL-style receiver — body style, size, ability to find space, the ability to play inside and outside, so that versatility made him very attractive."
Indeed, Tolbert played multiple receiver spots at South Alabama, something Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore prefers because it fosters creativity and matchup possibilities within the scheme.
"Personally, when I'm looking at receiver that's what I'm looking for," McCarthy said. "I think it's important, particular for perimeter players built to do two things: play inside and outside and return ability and the ability to go in the backfield. We'll obviously look at all those things when he gets here."
The Cowboys lost one of their two primary punt returners in March when ultra-efficient backup Cedrick Wilson signed with the Dolphins. CeeDee Lamb, who split return duties with Wilson, might see fewer returns or relinquish the role completely now that he's the No. 1 receiver. Perhaps Tolbert will be part of the punt return conversation; he's comfortable doing it but didn't have any stats there in college.
The immediate need, though, is his skill set at receiver.
Amari Cooper, the Cowboys' leading receiver since 2018, was traded to the Browns the same week Wilson left in free agency. Like Lamb, starter Michael Gallup will have more responsibility on offense this season, but he's recovering from February knee surgery to fix a torn ACL and might not be ready for Week 1.
The club signed four-year veteran James Washington to compete for snaps. Noah Brown is back for a sixth year in Dallas. And now Tolbert has a chance to earn a starting spot as one of the top three receivers (their most often-used personnel package last season).
Tolbert posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons for South Alabama in 2020 and 2021. He averaged 17.8 yards per catch in three years as a starter, backing up his 4.4-second 40 time. And he excelled against Power 5 competition: He posted 143 yards and a touchdown against Tennessee last November and impressed scouts with a strong Senior Bowl week in Mobile.
"I bring versatility, and one of my strengths is high-pointing and catching the ball away from my body," he said. "Being able to go up and catch the ball away from my body is a special thing that I take pride in, along with having great body control. I'm excited to improve in every aspect as a wide receiver."
And show that his game can translate from the Sun Belt to the NFL.
"I'm excited to continue to grow and continue to have that chip (on my shoulder)," he said, "and make people eat their words."