There are few events in professional sports as perplexing as preseason football. For the players looking to make the roster, the preseason gives them a chance to shine. For the fans, it is the first glimpse into the upcoming season. For rookies, it is their opportunity to leave an impression and hopefully capture a starting job. However, most regard these three weeks as irrelevant.
Regardless of how much weight you put into these rehearsal games, it is impossible not to root for certain players. Newly-added free agents, highly-touted rookies, and young prospects all fall into this group. For Dallas Cowboys fans this season, one of those names is Jalen Tolbert, the team’s 2022 third-round pick. But while most were hoping he would dazzle in the preseason, it has been the exact opposite. And that is alright.
Jalen Tolbert’s disappointing preseason holds no weight on his long-term prospects
If you haven't been impressed with Tolbert yet, few would blame you. In fact, Tolbert is having one of the worst preseasons of all rookie wide receivers. On 10 targets, he has only caught four passes for 35 yards going into the Seahawks finale. He has also dropped one ball, accumulated only three yards after the catch, with one interception when targeted. All of that results in a 10.4 passer rating when the ball is thrown in Tolbert’s direction. Out of 55 rookie wide receivers, he has posted the ninth worst PFF grade through the first two preseason games.
It has been ugly thus far. But the good news is that, for receivers especially, there is next to no correlation between preseason success and regular season performance.
The most prevalent example is Ja’Maar Chase, whose 29.5 PFF grade last preseason was the lowest ever recorded among qualifying receivers since they started grading preseason matchups in 2013. Obviously, that disastrous performance did not continue as Chase subsequently put up one of the best rookie seasons in NFL history.
And Chase is not the only WR who followed this pattern. Receivers who have finished in the bottom half of PFF grading during their rookie preseason include: Keenan Allen, Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin, Sammy Watkins, Darren Waller (who entered the NFL as a WR), Tyreek Hill, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Allen Lazard, Michael Gallup, Amon-Ra St. Brown, and Ja’Maar Chase. And there was no preseason in 2020, but if you only take the first three weeks of that season, CeeDee Lamb, Justin Jefferson, Michael Pittman, and Tee Higgins would also be included.
If you think the bottom half is too wide of criteria, names like Tavon Austin, Terrance Williams, Ty Montgomery, Darren Waller, Tyreek Hill, Zach Pascal, DJ Chark, Andy Isabella, and Ja’Maar Chase all finished in the bottom 10 by PFF grading in their rookie preseason. And keep in mind this includes undrafted free agents who never had a shot of making the team in the first place. While you might not think Andy Isabella is a heavy-hitting name, it is definitely more recognizable than Spencer Schnell, Nsimba Webster, and Olabisi Johnson, who were the top three finishers by PFF during Isabella’s rookie preseason.
There are two reasons why these games have little bearing on long-term success: development at the position and quarterback play.
Starting with the former, playing wide receiver is not as simple as it might seem at times. For the most part, even the elite WRs took a couple of years to acclimate to the NFL. What do Davante Adams, Cooper Kupp, Stefon Diggs, and Terrell Owens all have in common? None of them broke 1,000 yards in a season until their third year in the league. Learning how to play the position at a professional level takes longer than three weeks of preseason action. Because of that, you can’t project the long-term prospects of any receiver until they have had proper time to develop.
Similarly, the person throwing the ball matters. And Tolbert has primarily seen targets from the 11th and 14th worst quarterbacks this preseason out of the 72 who qualify, per PFF. This is not to presume that he has some magical connection with Dak Prescott already. But at least Tolbert’s targets would frequently be catchable with QB1 under center. There have been some bad drops on Tolbert’s end. However, there have also been a lot of passes that were nowhere near the rookie receiver’s vicinity, which is robbing fans of the opportunity to see what he can do with the ball in his hands.
There is a chance that Tolbert’s preseason is suggestive of what he will become. He was a third-round pick, and there is no guarantee that he pans out in Dallas. But what fans shouldn't do is jump to conclusions because of a few down preseason games. He is in good company with other now-superstar WRs who struggled to impress when they first walked on the field.
The reality is that, with the Tyron Smith injury, the team needs their playmakers to overcome a weak offensive line. Players like Tolbert will have to accelerate their development and contribute from day one. Don’t lose hope that the rookie receiver out of South Alabama can still do that.