Converted safety Tom Nelson carving niche as Ravens receiver

PHILADELPHIA -- Tom Nelson no longer thinks of himself as a safety, and he doesn't classify himself as a wide receiver. In his mind, he's just a football player, and a persistent one at that.

As a defensive back, Nelson was cut in the final week of August for the last three seasons. The last time he suited up for a game was 2011.

The question has never been how much he wants to play in the NFL. It's how can he stick with a team.

Nelson switched to wide receiver this year, and it may result in a change of fortune. In the Ravens' joint practices with the Philadelphia Eagles, Nelson has received increased reps with the first-team offense and he even caught a touchdown from Joe Flacco in a red zone drill.

"Once you get to this level, a position switch is very rare," Nelson said. "I always knew in the back of my mind that I could play offense. I was an offensive player all my life. For a team to give you that opportunity is much rarer."

An undrafted rookie in 2009, Nelson was thrust into the spotlight right away. His attempt to make the Cincinnati Bengals was chronicled on "Hard Knocks," and he ended up starting three games that season.

But he never established himself, bouncing around four teams in four seasons (Bengals, Eagles, Bears and Panthers). After getting cut in August 2014, Nelson acknowledged there were thoughts that he would never get another opportunity to play in the NFL.

Nelson decided to work full time at his training center in Chicago, but he discussed with his agent whether a switch to wide receiver could improve his chances of returning to the NFL. Tapes were sent out of Nelson working out as a wide receiver, and Ravens director of pro personnel Vince Newsome called to invite Nelson to a tryout two days before Baltimore's first training camp practice.

In a matter of three weeks, Nelson has gone from someone coach John Harbaugh knew nothing about to a dark horse to make the season-opening roster.

"He’s a very good route runner for a guy that has never played wide receiver," Harbaugh said. "He has a good feel for getting in zones, getting open, very good hands. He has done a nice job. He has put himself in the conversation.”

There are four perceived locks at wide receiver: Steve Smith, Breshad Perriman, Kamar Aiken and Marlon Brown. Michael Campanaro is a good bet for the fifth spot. Most assumed Darren Waller, Jeremy Butler and DeAndre Carter were battling for the final one or two spots.

But Nelson has been a fast riser recently. Judging by his increased snaps with the starters, he's gone from a long shot to a player on the bubble.

It's a compliment to Nelson that he has made the change in position look so seamless.

"I feel like I have a grasp of football," Nelson said. "Obviously, playing defensive back, I understand the concepts and how they're trying to attack defenses. That's definitely made it easier. It's been smooth. I think I've picked it up fairly well."

Nelson's change in position has certainly increased his value, but it's his determination that has kept him striving year after year to make a regular-season roster again.

"At the end of the day, I'm a football player," Nelson said. "I think I can do a lot things on the football field. Wherever they see me as a fit, I'm more than willing to do it."