Croyle, Whitehurst battling for No. 4

Most casual football fans, perhaps even someone who has spent the past few weeks in a cave, probably knows the identities of the Big Three quarterbacks in the 2006 draft.

After the much-ballyhooed trio of Matt Leinart, Vince Young and Jay Cutler, though, there are likely some fans who can't name three other quarterback prospects period in this year's talent pool. Then again, even knowing the other players in a quarterback class that includes several intriguing possibilities doesn't ensure knowing the order in which they'll be chosen after the three certain first-rounders go off the board.

"It's always a position where beauty is in the eye of the beholder," said St. Louis Rams head coach and noted quarterback expert Scott Linehan at last month's annual league meetings. "That's especially true after the obvious, first-round guys. Then you're looking for someone who fits what you do, maybe someone you can develop, and that can differ from team to team. Sometimes it's surprising how differently teams might feel about the same guy. It's always interesting to see which of those guys pans out."

Certainly the quarterback chosen outside the first round in 2005 who produced the best results was Kyle Orton of Chicago, the Bears' fourth-round pick but a player many teams rated even lower than that. Not even Bears general manager Jerry Angelo could have predicted that Orton would register a 10-5 record as a starter -- or, for that matter, that the former Purdue star would have to play as a rookie -- but Chicago can look back on the choice as one that saved its season after starter Rex Grossman broke his ankle.

There were 14 quarterbacks chosen overall in the 2005 draft, and the 13 who earned berths on regular-season rosters combined for just 30 starts. Orton had half those starts and 10 of the 14 victories rung up by rookie quarterbacks last season. He had nearly 40 percent of all the completions for rookie quarterbacks in 2005 and posted 38.6 percent of the passing yards and 45 percent of the touchdown passes.

Although the recovery of Grossman and the offseason addition of veteran Brian Griese has relegated Orton to the No. 3 spot on the depth chart going into training camp this summer, there are still teams that regret passing on him a year ago and that, frankly, are trying to identity this year's Kyle Orton-type prospect.

One player who might fit the mold is Kellen Clemens of Oregon, who missed the final month of his senior season with a fractured left ankle but has rehabilitated not only his leg but his draft status. In recent workouts for scouts, Clemens has been impressive, and he is moving quickly up draft boards and probably has gotten himself into position to be chosen on the first day.

But two more players who might fit the Orton model even more closely -- although neither looks likely to slip to the fourth round -- are Charlie Whitehurst of Clemson and Alabama's Brodie Croyle. The consensus opinion of scouts is that one of the two will be the fourth quarterback chosen April 29, with both likely projected into the second round.

That would be an anomaly of sorts because there hasn't been a passer chosen in the second stanza in any of the last four drafts and five of the last six. The recent trend has been toward waiting until the second day, not the second round, to get a young quarterback prospect. Since 2000, nearly two-thirds of the 83 quarterbacks selected (55-28) were chosen after the third round. And 35 of the 83, more than 42 percent, were selected in the sixth or seventh round.

This year's draft could end that trend. Judging from interviews with scouts, there could be 18-20 passers taken in the seven rounds, well above the average of 13.8 since 2000. And there should be more first-day quarterbacks chosen than the average of 4.7 in the last six drafts. Croyle and Whitehurst are eliciting considerable interest because they have played in big-time conferences, in front of huge crowds, and have performed well.

"When [scouts] have asked me what they should know about me as a quarterback, I've pretty much told them all the same thing: that I've won games," said Croyle, who played in 50 games during a career with the Crimson Tide that often was interrupted by injuries, including a torn right anterior cruciate ligament that cost him nine starts. "After that, I want them to know that I'm going to work hard, no matter where I stand on the depth chart, and I'm going to have myself ready to play."

Sound a little like Orton? Well, it should. Want someone whose college numbers are eerily similar to those posted by Orton during his Purdue career? Then try Whitehurst, who played in the same number of games (44) as Orton, had a slightly better completion percentage (59.7-58.8) and threw for 328 more yards.

The former Clemson standout is the son of onetime Green Bay quarterback David Whitehurst, so he possesses an excellent bloodline. Whitehurst probably has better potential than his father, though, and most scouts like his size, pocket stature and arm strength. He has fully recovered from the shoulder surgery he underwent late last season, and several teams, notably the Dallas Cowboys, are paying close attention. There seems little doubt that, outside of the top three prospects, Whitehurst has the strongest arm.

"I've been around the game, and I think I understand what it takes to play in the NFL, and I hope I've used that knowledge to my advantage," Whitehurst said.

As was the case with Orton, whose draft stock slipped dramatically during the course of his senior season, Whitehurst and Croyle certainly had some setbacks during their college tenures. Neither performed in an offense with many playmakers, but both demonstrated resolve and grit as well as the kind of leadership that will serve them well at the next level.

They might not play as quickly in the NFL as Orton was forced to do as a rookie, but Whitehurst and Croyle are names with which fans should familiarize themselves.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.