Like Victor Cruz, Stevie Brown might be another gem in the rough

Giants defensive back Stevie Brown celebrates his interception

Giants defensive back Stevie Brown celebrates his interception with cornerback Prince Amukamara during the fourth quarter of an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers. (Sept. 20, 2012) (Credit: AP)

Bob Glauber

Newsday columnist Bob Glauber Bob Glauber

Glauber has been Newsday's national football columnist since 1992. He

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Three years ago, Victor Cruz was the hidden gem the Giants discovered: an undrafted free-agent wide receiver out of the University of Massachusetts who has quickly turned into one of the most dynamic offensive players in today's NFL.

Is it possible the Giants have discovered the defensive equivalent in Stevie Brown, a previously unknown safety who has created more turnovers than anyone else in the NFL so far?

Could be.

And while it's too soon to know if Brown's meteoric rise at safety is more shooting star than rising star, the fact that the Giants have plucked yet another player out of obscurity and turned him into a highly effective player is just the latest tribute to their exceptional front office and elite coaching staff.

Paying attention, Ben Roethlisberger? The Steelers quarterback had better take note of the Giants' ball-hawking safety, who is looking for another big-time performance against Pittsburgh's big-time passer when the Giants host the Steelers at MetLife Stadium Sunday.

How incredible has Brown's play been in four starts in place of the injured Kenny Phillips? Well, consider this: He has five interceptions. That matches former first-round safety Antrel Rolle's total in 40 starts since he came to the Giants as a high-profile free agent before the 2010 season.

And how about this: With Phillips ready to return from a knee injury, defensive coordinator Perry Fewell was asked if he will assume his starting spot alongside Rolle and relegate Brown to the bench. His answer: "Stevie's hard to unseat right now. We'll find a way for Kenny to be on the field."

And then this stunning admission from Phillips, a former first-round pick: "It's rare that a guy loses his position to an injury, but it's possible the way [Brown] is playing. Whatever role they give me, I'll take it. If I have to back up my backup, I'll do it."

Imagine that. Brown came to the Giants as a street free agent, signing a one-year contract for $605,000, a pittance by NFL standards. It's only slightly more than the $540,000 salary that Cruz is getting, although Cruz's earnings could change if his contract is reworked in the coming weeks.

In all likelihood, Fewell will find a way to get all three of his safeties -- Rolle, Brown and Phillips -- on the field Sunday. The defensive coordinator used a three-safety system last year involving Rolle, Phillips and veteran Deon Grant, and he said there's a good chance he'll use a similar setup against the Steelers.

That Brown is in this position is an astonishing turn of events. A seventh-round pick of the Raiders in 2010, he started only one game before being released. He signed a one-year deal with the Colts in 2011 but played only eight games before being placed on injured reserve with a quadriceps injury.

But credit the Giants for taking a chance on him when no one else would, and then coaching him to the point that Brown -- and not Phillips -- might become the team's long-term starter at the position.

With Phillips due to become an unrestricted free agent next year, it's possible that Brown will stay and Phillips will leave if the Giants can't agree on a new contract.

"We thought Stevie was a young guy that jumped off the screen as a special-teamer first," general manager Jerry Reese said. "Good athlete, can run, thought he had a chance to ascend, gave him a shot."

The defense's answer to Cruz?

"You can frame it however you want," Reese said. "It's just a guy who has taken advantage of his opportunity. It happens all over the league."

Brown came into training camp as the fourth safety but moved up to third on the depth chart after Will Hill was suspended last month for using the banned substance Adderall. Brown then was pressed into a starting role when Phillips suffered a sprained knee ligament.

He came up with two interceptions and a key fumble recovery in the Giants' 29-24 win over the Cowboys last week, earning NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors.

So how could so many teams have missed on Brown the same way they did on Cruz?

"I don't know if they missed anything. It's just opportunity, and I've had that opportunity here," said Brown, who played safety and linebacker at Michigan. "That's why it's paying off. I definitely felt I had it in me. I've always had confidence in my ability. I'd tell that to anybody any day of the week. I've just had an opportunity and I'm trying to capitalize on it."

He has capitalized on it the way Cruz did last year, turning into one of the NFL's finest receivers. It's still too early to tell if Brown's emergence will continue, but the Giants like what they've seen.

"It's good to be surprised," Fewell said. "I'm very happy and excited for him, and happy for our football team."