Dallas Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy routinely raves about players who make a huge jump in play and production in their second NFL season.
The nervousness and newness as a rookie gives way to an air of comfort and confidence, allowing a player to realize their potential.
The second-year jump is universal for everyone from Pro Bowlers and All-Pros like Micah Parsons to draft picks to undrafted players making the roster after spending time on the practice squad.
And while the Cowboys have seen an increased level of comfort and expectations for three 2022 rookie draft picks in guard Tyler Smith, tight end Jake Ferguson and defensive end Sam Williams, no one has made a bigger jump from last year to this year so far than receiver Jalen Tolbert.
Tolbert was a disappointment as rookie in 2022 after curiously being picked in the third round out of South Alabama and given the task of helping replace veteran receiver Amari Cooper.
Tolbert was active for just eight games last season, catching just two passes on three three targets. His lack of production is one thing. But the moment that truly puts his disappointing season in perspective when he lined up offsides in an overtime loss to the Green Bay Packers when the Cowboys were trying to get in field goal range.
But called a bust fueled Tolbert throughout the offseason and has looked like a new person in OTAs, minicamp and training camp.
It was all on display in the 22-14 loss to the Seattle Seahawks as Tolbert caught four passes for 66 yards. It was another case of what Tolbert has done during the offseason and in training camp, stacking good days on top of each other. He has two catches for 29 yards, including a 17-yard touchdown in the first preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Tolbert has nailed down the fourth receiver spot behind CeeDee Lamb, Brandin Cooks and Michael Gallup.
“I am just building on what I have been trying to build on the whole training camp,” Tolbert said after the Seahawks game. “Continuing to grow and build confidence in playing, and playing fast. It was fun to go out there, compete and show what I can do.”
“It was important to go out there and show that last week wasn’t just a one on done and just go out there and keep stacking days and just continue to stack these practices as well.”
McCarthy said Tolbert is the living embodiment of what a second-year jump looks like and cited his increased confidence.
Tolbert always worked hard and took such meticulous notes that the coaches raved about his handwriting and penmanship. He just needed to put it together on the field.
“Absolutely. Yeah, I mean, just the confidence number one,” McCarthy said. “It just jumps off the field. I think that’s really attributed to his hard work. He’s had a heck of an offseason. He’s cashing in on opportunities. He’s going up and making plays. I like the instinct of plays, the scramble plays, the extended plays. So I just think it shows you how much he’s grown. He’s on the same page as the quarterbacks.”
Vice president Stephen Jones says he can’t remember a Cowboys player taking as a big a jump in the second year as they are seeing from Tolbert, who has admittedly been aided by the addition of Cooks.
The transition from college to the NFL is tough for most rookies. Some are ready to roll like Tyler Smith was last year and linebacker DeMarvion Overshown, who was the star of the 2023 rookie class before suffering a season-ending knee injury against the Seahawks.
“I think Tolbert is a perfect example of this. Some guys walk in — I don’t want to harp on Overshown — but Overshown came in ready to roll,” Jones said. “Then you got a guy like Tolbert who ended up needing a little time, then you get a veteran in the room with him like a [Brandin] Cooks, and now we’re seeing what we drafted. Tolbert’s locked down that four spot and certainly shown that he can be productive for us.
“Dak’s very comfortable with him, so that third-round pick has turned into something that we’re going to have. Obviously, last year it was slow. He wasn’t quite ready yet and he didn’t get the playing time that I’m sure he would have liked.”
Tolbert doesn’t shy away from his struggles of last year. And he deservedly feels good about what has put on tape the past two preseason, showing his growth.
“It’s special,” Tolbert said. “Obviously, I know it is there and I just had to put it all together regain and my confidence this offseason. So just going out there now and being myself, playing fast physical and confident
“Really, it’s always been there. I just had to regain my mental state regain my confidence and then obviously knowing where I’m supposed to be at and when I supposed to do and be able to play you know, fast and physical and confident also helps such as going out there and being myself.”
Tolbert said he feels like he did when he was in college but he refuses to be satisfied. He has done nothing yet. His officialy NFL stat line remains two career catches.
“We just continue to grow upon that,” Tolbert said. “And obviously, you can always get better at every aspect of wide receivers. So that’s the goal is 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 that I can.”