Derek Brown watched the NFL draft from his mom’s Fountain Valley home last spring, and his bitterness grew with every second-round pick.
After workouts for scouts and coaches, Brown figured someone in need of a speedy tailback would take him at least by the late second round.
He watched as Phoenix took Georgia running back Garrison Hearst with the third overall pick.
He waited as the Rams drafted Notre Dame’s Jerome Bettis with the 10th overall pick, then take Cal’s Russell White in the third round.
And he worried when Indianapolis took Northeast Louisiana tailback Roosevelt Potts midway through the second round.
Finally, with the 109th overall pick, the Saints selected Brown late in the fourth round. He was the 14th running back taken, although he doubted there were 13 backs better.
After all, he had rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of his sophomore and junior seasons at Nebraska. His speed and quickness ranked at the top among tailbacks eligible for the draft.
“I was very disappointed,” said Brown, a former standout at Anaheim Servite High. “I expected to go much, much higher, at least the second round.
“I thought I had tested great at the scouting combine. I had worked out well for scouts. I don’t know where the decisions were made, but they weren’t the right ones.”
Brown has become one of the Saints’ main weapons--and one of the draft’s biggest surprises.
After a season-ending knee injury to starting tailback Vaughn Dunbar during the exhibition season, Brown has exceeded expectations as his replacement.
Entering Sunday’s game against the Rams, Brown ranks fourth in the NFL with 347 yards rushing, an average of 86.7 per game. He is third in the NFC behind Detroit’s Barry Sanders (404) and San Francisco’s Ricky Watters (376) and leads all rookie running backs.
Last Sunday, Brown ran for 88 yards in 21 carries and scored the Saints’ only touchdown in a 16-13 victory over San Francisco. Two weeks ago, he outrushed Sanders, 121 yards to 76, in New Orleans’ 14-3 victory.
“I can’t wait to get to L.A. and play against the Rams,” Brown said. “Their running backs coach (Chick Harris) paid a lot of attention to me during the Indianapolis scouting combine, but they didn’t draft me.
“I would like to see him again and see what he has to say now.”
Coaches and scouts liked Brown’s speed and quickness, but questioned whether he had the size and strength to play in the NFL. Brown, 5 feet 9, weighed only 180 pounds on draft day. He added 10 pounds by training camp.
“I was watching some film of Derek against Houston the other day,” Harris said. “And he hit this linebacker and just caved the guy in. He had really improved his leg strength since I last saw him.”
Said Ram Coach Chuck Knox: “It just goes to show you that these little guys who can move and run with the football can do it at the top level, the high school level, and at some of the smaller colleges. The ball isn’t heavy, and it doesn’t take a big guy to carry it. This guy (Brown) has really been impressive.”
Harris said the Rams took Brown “very seriously” on draft day. But Brown didn’t fit the team’s needs. The Rams wanted a power back, which they got in Bettis. White’s size and inside running ability also impressed the coaching staff.
Through four games, Bettis has 158 yards in 41 carries. White is returning kickoffs and hasn’t rushed with the ball in a regular-season game.
“We had already taken two backs (Bettis and White), so it was hard to load up on that one position,” Harris said. “Derek’s hands were OK, but for a little guy you would like him to be a little better receiver. People also questioned his size, ability to run out of arm tackles and hit it up inside.”
“But there’s an intangible sometimes, that a heart of a guy brings him through those problems. Derek really wanted to be in pro football. He got there, and now he’s doing a super job.”
Brown left Nebraska frustrated by sharing time at I-back with Calvin Jones. Brown’s carries decreased from 235 his sophomore year to 173 his junior season, and his yardage slipped from 1,323 to 1,024.
“We weren’t able to do as much as we wanted offensively at Nebraska because of the way (Coach) Tom Osborne is,” Brown said. “But that’s him. He can run things how he wants.”
As Jones emerged as the Cornhuskers’ big-play back, Brown figured his playing time, and NFL hopes, would diminish if he returned for his senior year. Why warm the bench in college when he could be getting paid to do the same in the NFL?
“I just didn’t think there was anything else I could do there,” Brown said.
He based his decision to leave school on more than football. He had a daughter, Kierra, with his girlfriend in Lincoln. He felt responsible to provide income for them, as well as help his mother, Shirley, and brother, Mark.
“My mom was having some tough times and it was pretty difficult for her,” Brown said. “It was tough for us financially. It’s tough to find a good job and keep it. My family was a big part of my decision.”
Brown mulled over the decision and made the draft registration deadline by half an hour.
After the draft-day disappointment, Brown left for training camp last summer figuring he would spend a year on New Orleans’ developmental squad.
The Saints were loaded with talented backs such as Dunbar, Dalton Hilliard and Fred McAfee. They also signed former Chicago fullback Brad Muster as a free agent and drafted Fresno State fullback Lorenzo Neal before Brown in the fourth round.
“I didn’t think I would play that much,” Brown said. “I thought I would probably spend the year sitting back and learning.”
But when Dunbar tore a knee ligament in an exhibition game against Green Bay, Brown suddenly had the ball in his hands. And he dropped it.
After fumbling twice in the first quarter, Brown rebounded with 75 yards rushing and two touchdowns.
“I was playing poorly,” Brown said. “But the coaches stuck with me and left me in.”
McAfee missed most of training camp because of a knee injury, Muster was out until last week because of a knee sprain and Brown moved past Hilliard on the depth chart. Neal, Brown’s roommate, broke his ankle and is out for the season.
The injuries left Brown as the starting tailback when the season began.
“It’s unfortunate the way that it had to happen,” he said. “But Vaughn and Fred got hurt, and I just worked my way up into the starting position. I just took advantage of the opportunities they gave me.”
At his current pace, Brown would finish with 1,388 yards, second on the Saints’ all-time single-season list behind George Rogers, who rushed for 1,674 yards during his rookie season in 1981.
Brown has become a big part of the Saints’ offense. He runs through huge holes opened by rookie tackle William Roaf and guard Chris Port. He’s an extra target out of the backfield for quarterback Wade Wilson.
His teammates nicknamed him “Little Dalton” for his resemblance to Hilliard.
“That was a nice honor because Dalton’s a great running back and I’ve learned a lot from him,” Brown said. “People like to say I run like Dalton, too. But I just run like Derek.”