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Cowboys WR Jalen Tolbert working to 'get back to the dude I was' after disappointing rookie season 

Counting on a third-round pick to contribute in his rookie year certainly isn't a surefire strategy for success, but that's where the Cowboys found themselves with wide receiver Jalen Tolbert in 2022.

The results didn't pan out for Dallas. Tolbert appeared in eight games as a rookie, catching two of his three total targets for 12 yards on the year.

It was a lack of confidence, Tolbert told reporters after Dallas' final OTAs session of 2023, that caused his struggles and deflated his value to the team in 2022.

"Even from [2022 training camp]," Tolbert explained, via the team's official site. "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 adjustment comes at different speeds for every player, and Tolbert wasn't exactly getting a pro-level course during his time at South Alabama. It was also fair to expect he might receive more room to grow on a Dallas roster that seemingly didn't need him to help out right away.

Tolbert's lack of production ended up stinging because of how much the Cowboys could have used him. 

2022 was good lesson in why approaching a season by trading away one of your top two receiving talents, then banking on the return of a seriously injured pass-catcher to keep your passing game afloat can quickly prove to be an ill-fated plan of attack. In this instance, Dallas sent Amari Cooper to Cleveland for relative peanuts (a fifth-round pick that became tackle Matt Waletzko, and a sixth-round pick swap), selected Tolbert in the third round, and held out hope Michael Gallup would be able to return from his ACL injury at full strength for the majority of the season, if not all of it.

Because Gallup took much more time than anticipated to return, the Cowboys eventually found out just how thin they were at receiver, leaving Noah Brown, Simi Fehoko, former undrafted free agent (and return specialist) KaVontae Turpin, and Tolbert as the only options left alongside CeeDee Lamb. Things became so dire prior to (and after) Gallup's eventual return that the Cowboys actively pursued Odell Beckham Jr. before signing T.Y. Hilton late in the campaign.

Dallas has since attempted to prevent such an outcome from occurring twice, acquiring Brandin Cooks in the offseason. They're also still hoping Tolbert ends up being more than a high-potential, low-output selection.

Tolbert returned home in the offseason, and with the assistance of quarterback Dak Prescott -- whom Tolbert said helped him by giving him a book to help him deal with mental obstacles -- Tolbert has learned from his difficult debut campaign and is ready to show how much he's grown from it.

"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]."

It doesn't hurt to return to a supportive receivers room, either, even when their presence might make it tougher for Tolbert to stick due to roster limits. After all, what Tolbert might need most is some guidance and the removal of expectation to truly shine.

He feels he's already making strides down that path.

"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."

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