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FRISCO, Texas -- Dallas Cowboys All-Pro wide receiver CeeDee Lamb, who led the NFL with 135 catches in 2023, being absent from organized team activities (OTAs)  provides the club with a fantastic opportunity to evaluate its wide receiver position, especially important in an offseason in which it released former No. 3 wideout Michael Gallup.

"Oh it's big," head coach Mike McCarthy said Wednesday. "I think anytime you have an opportunity as a young receiver to get reps, it's huge opportunity, especially with the first group. So I mean just you can see both (Jalen Tolbert) and J Brooks [Jalen Brooks]. So those two guys had a really nice practice yesterday. I think just anytime you get those extra reps, it's great for young guys. It's good for our quarterbacks too."

Quarterback Dak Prescott, a 2023 second-team All-Pro who led the NFL in passing touchdowns with 36 a year ago, concurs with his head coach and play-caller. 

"At the end of the day, we're going to have to count on one of these guys who's getting some of the reps that CeeDee would," Prescott said Wednesday. "I think that's the important part for these guys to understand that these are real reps. ... The fact that these young guys can get in here, they can hear everything, they can communicate, they can understand what I want on routes will be big. We're going to need some of those guys."

Jalen Tolbert
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One of the guys with the most opportunity in a younger Cowboys wide receiver room is third-year wideout Jalen Tolbert. Tolbert, a 2022 third-round pick out of South Alabama, struggled out of the gate as a rookie with just 12 receiving yards on two catches while playing eight games in 2022. Last season, McCarthy's first as the Cowboys' offensive play caller, Tolbert put together a more complete second season: 268 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns on 22 catches while playing all 17 games. 

"My rookie year, I think I had lost every bit, almost all of my confidence coming off a hamstring injury in OTAs and then trying to catch up and then just moving around and playing every spot," Tolbert said Wednesday. "I think I was thinking way more than I should instead of just going out there and having fun, knowing that I belong here, that I'm valuable at this level and can play very high at this level. ... It's completely different now. It's a 180."

Wide receiver Brandin Cooks, who is entering his 11th NFL season in 2024, became a mentor of Tolbert's upon his arrival to Dallas last offseason via trade with the Houston Texans. After a year under Cooks' wing, the vet thinks his young guy can make a jump in production in 2024. 

"He's ready to go," said Cooks of Tolbert on Wednesday. "Whatever the expectations are for him out there [in 2024], I'm telling you he's gonna crush it. He's ready. I look forward to him being able to get that opportunity. It's the way that he goes to work. I'm a firm believer that the harder you work, when you have a great work ethic, it's going to pay off. I think you've seen that over the last couple years, and I think that time is now for him."

Tolbert went from observing Cooks' habits and digesting McCarthy's updated offensive playbook in 2023 to being a frequent target of Prescott's early and often in the 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 work during Wednesday's OTAs. 

"Making plays early on in OTAs," Cooks said when asked to point to an example of Tolbert's growth. "The way that he's able to talk about a route. The way he's able to tell a quarterback how he sees things. He's not shy anymore. He's able to go up to Dak and say, 'Hey I seen this this way.' I think it's awesome to see him grow in that aspect."

A much deeper connection off the field between Tolbert and Prescott has also served as a boost for the 25-year-old's growth. His approach to when Prescott reaches out to him to hang out in any capacity is that of actor Jim Carrey's in the 2008 movie "Yes Man." Y-E-S. 

"Every time he asks to go throw or do anything like go to his and chill, go throw, I'm there," Tolbert said. "We talk almost every day. We talk about "MLB The Show," video games, whatever it is. Having a quarterback that believes in you and is a great person like Dak is to kind of take you under his wing is special. So knowing that I have a quarterback like that that believes in me and knows what I'm capable of doing makes me want to work even harder to not let him down as well. Having him in my corner along with Brandin Cooks as well is big for me. I love those guys to death, and I'm going to do what I can for them."

The trust in Tolbert has been reflected back from both Prescott and Cooks. He has gone out to dinner with Prescott, Prescott's girlfriend Sarah Jane and their three-month-old daughter SJ outside of scheduled, team functions. 

"The time together, whether it's talking baseball games or going to a Mavs game or Stars game, whatever it is, just that time outside of the football field, you're growing and learning more about him," Tolbert said when going in detail about he and Prescott's friendship. "As you learn him and he learns me, you understand a person's why, why they're doing it and what they're doing it for. You're continuing to grow and continuing to understand that it's bigger than yourself. Having a quarterback like that and obviously, Brandin [Cooks] has taken me under his wing, went out there to [his home in] Oregon and working with him, understanding why he does it and hanging out with him his family every day is special."

Tolbert doesn't take those intimate, family time moments for granted.  

"For them to trust in me and bring me around to those [family] environments and continuing to spend time with me, it's special for me," Tolbert said. "I'm going to do what I can to make sure I hold up my end of the bargain and I hold it very well. I'm confident in myself. Now I'm just having fun with it."

Now, his confidence brightly shines through to the Cowboys coaching staff, which has taken note of his football IQ reaching new heights. 

"I would say his confidence; he's taken leaps and bounds in that area," McCarthy said of Tolbert. "I think anything that's consistent in this game, the more confident that the individual is, his physicality, his urgency, the understanding of detail, the competitiveness vastly increases. He's always been a very bright young man. I go back to his rookie season, and we spent some extra time together on the Sunday off days [last year]. He had every play written out, the detail of his notetaking."  

Tolbert trusting his knowledge of McCarthy's playbook could be the difference in Dallas finishing even more drives in the red zone, an area of focus in 2024. The Cowboys converted 40 of their 71 red zone drives into touchdowns in 2023, a rate of 56.3% that ranked 14th in the NFL. Increasing that rate by coming through as a reliable third receiver option when defenses swarm Lamb and Cooks is exactly what Dallas needs from Tolbert next season. 

"I think I was still learning as well [last year]," Tolbert said. "But this year, I kind of have a grip of plays and things that Coach McCarthy would want. So now it's just about continuing to grow and continuing to build those nuances that could help me on and off the football field. ... My confidence is through the roof and so, just going out every day and like I said, doing what I know I can do and having fun with it. That's a big point, just having fun with what you're doing and being confident in what you're doing. I'm having fun, I'm confident, continuing to grow every day, continuing to build that chemistry with Dak and my teammates as well. Showing my value in this offense."