Out in Portland, Oregon at the Performance Training Center, Tom Nelson watched himself change. For the months of January and February, the Illinois State defensive back trained with Landon Evans and his speed, strength and diet elevated to a new level.
The downside? His wallet thinned. The diet – heavy on calories and protein – gutted Nelson's disposable income. One small price to pay on the road to the NFL Draft.
"Just ridiculous amounts of food," Nelson said. "When I was out there, I probably spent $2000 on groceries."
As a result, the safety earned his personal-best times and jumps in all events at his pro day. In attendance were the Buffalo Bills. While 20 of the 32 teams have talked to Nelson, the Bills are particularly interested. Buffalo, Carolina, Chicago and Cleveland have been the most interested teams, Nelson said.
Buffalo's curiosity will pique higher if it can trade Roscoe Parrish. The team put Parrish on the block a couple weeks ago. With a loaded receiving corps of Terrell Owens, Lee Evans, Josh Reed, James Hardy and Steve Johnson, it'll be nearly impossible for Parrish to impact the passing game.
If the Bills can unload Parrish, then a crater-sized void will be left at punt return. Parrish led the entire NFL in punt return average last year at 15.3. He has averaged 14 yards per return in four seasons with Buffalo. Parrish consistently have the Bills the best field position in the NFL. A dynamo in space, Parrish has been one rare playmaker on the team.
Maybe Nelson is the replacement.
Nelson projects as a low-round selection or an undrafted free agent pickup. With Illinois State, Nelson was a fireplug in the return game. He averaged 15.6 per punt and 24.7 per kick with two touchdowns. Thus, he led the team in all-purpose yardage (957). At safety, Nelson also led his team in tackles (81).
Returning has always been in Nelson's blood. Even as a quarterback in high school, he returned kicks and punts. Simply put, coach "wanted the ball in my hands," Nelson said. So he was utility man: 900 rushing yards, 1,034 passing yards, 17 total touchdowns and who knows how many return yards as a senior.
His style is decisive. He doesn't process moves. He doesn't two-step around lanes. Instead, Nelson hits them – hard.
"I think I have good vision," Nelson said. "I played quarterback in high school and ran the ball a lot. Good speed and pretty elusive. I run hard. I'm not trying to dance around. I run upfield to get yards and get good field position."
Nelson didn't exactly face SEC speed in the Missouri Valley Conference. But returning is an art more than anything. Instinctively weaving into lanes as the moment they develop. Unlike other skills, returning kicks and punts can't be taught. It's speed and elusiveness. Nelson, whose best 40-yard dash time is 4.38, possesses such second-nature burst.
Check Nelson out on YouTube. As a sixth- or seventh-round flier, he could be worth a shot.
Nelson's two months in Portland served as the perfect boot camp. At the same facility that New York Giants' tight end Kevin Boss, Seattle Seahawks' wide receiver Mike Hass and Cincinnati Reds' prospect Kevin Coddington train at, Nelson worked 1-on-1 with Evans – who Nelson raves about.
Here in Buffalo, Nelson is being targeted below the radar. Though he could add depth to safety, Nelson would play immediately in the return game. His talks with the team have been productive, he said.
"Some football here and there and just (Buffalo) letting me know what they think of me," Nelson said. "They had a couple questions for me and just the basic stuff I guess.
"I'd say they're one of the top teams that has shown a lot of interest in me. Definitely up there."
Nelson added that he'd "definitely love to be a Bill." Intriguing in that Nelson is unlike most draft prospects this time of year. As a potential undrafted free agent, he may get to pick his destination. And a void at punt return could open up at any moment. Jackson was exceptional in the return game in relief of Parrish, but his contract situation remains murky. The Bills haven't offered the long-term deal that Jackson wants. With Leodis McKelvin's role expanding on defense, don't expect him to field punts.
Not like instinctive, speedy punt returners are a dime a dozen, either.
The Bills got to see Nelson at Illinois University's pro day where Nelson joined the neighboring school. He did all of the defensive back drills with Vontae Davis, who could be taken in the first round. Nelson participated in all drills and was clocked everywhere from 4.40 to 4.49 in the 40-yard dash.
Naturally, Nelson grew up as a big Bears fan in Chicago. But he said he loved watching Thurman Thomas, reminded him of Walter Payton.
As for today's Bills, Nelson's friends are already razzing him about the possibility of lining up against Terrell Owens in practice. Bring it on, he says.
"You never know. Maybe that will happen," Nelson said. "I mean it'd be a thrill for me. I'd look forward to the challenge."