The receiver and some friends were just visiting his buddy, Bubba Thompson, an outfielder in the Texas Rangers farm system, who was playing essentially across the street from the Cowboys’ facility for the Frisco RoughRiders. They stood on the turf field outside Ford Center, watching highlights of quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott play on a loop.
“It was always a goal to be able to play at the highest level, whatever the sport was, football or baseball,” said Thompson, who was Tolbert’s quarterback at McGill-Toolen High School in Mobile, Alabama, and is now with the Rangers' Triple-A affiliate in Round Rock, Texas. “We’re working to play at the highest level. Any team would be awesome, but it’s crazy that he got a chance to go to the Cowboys. That’s pretty neat.”
Thompson was the Rangers’ first-round pick in 2017, while Tolbert was the Cowboys’ third-round pick last month, but their chase of their pro sports dream began the same way: constant days and nights running routes, throwing passes, lifting weights, taking swings in the cage and working out in the sand to improve their strength and quickness.
“We’ve always been like that,” Thompson said. “We’re trying to be the best. That’s what the best do. Just got to be prepared. It ain’t going to just come to you.”
Tolbert didn’t play football until his sophomore year in high school. He was more of a baseball player, like Thompson, and even attended a private workout for the Rangers held in Atlanta. But he got hooked on football, jokingly saying he had more trouble with the slider than the curveball. He caught 14 passes for 135 yards as a junior in high school. As a senior, with Thompson as his quarterback, he caught 37 passes for 696 yards and nine touchdowns, making it all the way to the State 7A Championship.
He was far from a sure-fire prospect. He received interest from Michigan State but chose to stay close to home at South Alabama in the Sun Belt Conference. In four years, he set school records in receptions (178), yards (3,140), touchdown receptions (22) and 100-yard games (10).
It is work he started with Thompson and continues now that has gotten him to this point. At the Cowboys' recent rookie orientation, he was the last player to leave the field, catching passes off the Jugs machine.
“I feel like you’ve got to do more than everybody else if you want to be higher or better than everybody else,” Tolbert said. “You’re to get what you put in, basically, so get 1% better every day. I’m looking to put in the extra work so that it can come back to me on the back end.”
In the summer prior to his final college season, Tolbert went to the Senior Bowl offices and met with its executive director, Jim Nagy, a former NFL scout.
“The last year and a half, he’s really prepared like a pro,” Nagy said. “I think that’s what made him different in this receiver class. I can attest to it. I can feel really good about saying that Jalen is really going to be able to hit the ground running. He really dove into the tape study part of it.”
In particular, Tolbert looked at Tennessee cornerback Alontae Taylor, knowing he would need a big game to answer questions about playing against better competition. He caught seven passes for 143 yards against the Volunteers last season.
But Nagy also picked apart some of Tolbert’s game, too.
“We’re watching my Southern Miss game and he’s telling me, ‘Hey, I think right here you can take one more revolution. You can do this and maybe get a little bit more separation,’” Tolbert said. “Me taking that from him, I can take to my game in practice and work on it.”
After meeting with Nagy, he worked out with former NFL receiver Yo Murphy in Florida, spending time with other current NFL receivers. Perhaps an even bigger benefit to Tolbert was Major Applewhite becoming South Alabama’s offensive coordinator in 2021 after two years as an analyst at Alabama.
“So I was seeing how they were maneuvering and how they were setting themselves up to win on routes,” said Tolbert, who finished with 1,474 yards and eight touchdowns on 82 receptions as a senior.
For the first time, Tolbert lined up outside and inside, moving around the formation. It opened his eyes more to the complete picture of an offense, and the Cowboys feel comfortable he will be able to line up wherever they need him.
After the Cowboys drafted him, Tolbert said Prescott sent him a playbook.
“He’s immediately trying to get every piece of material he can get and grab everything,” offensive coordinator Kellen Moore said. “We’re like, ‘We’ll take this day by day.’ But you can tell he wants (to learn) and values that. You’re going to win in this league with all the details.”
With receiver Michael Gallup recovering from a torn anterior ligament in his left knee, the Cowboys will need Tolbert to be productive, especially early in the season. It’s a big request of any rookie, especially from a smaller school, but one they feel comfortable making.
“Frankly, one of the things he made a big point of in our initial conversation was he’s pretty young to the game of football,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “He hasn’t played a lot of football. To me, that’s exciting. Using his words, he said, ‘I don’t know how high my ceiling is going to be, but I think it’s going to be pretty damn high.’ I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, you can see it.’”