Big Ben's #NFLRank comes with asterisk

When I was working on ESPN's #NFLRank project, it didn't take long to put the ratings on the AFC North players. That is, except one.

The toughest player for me to grade was Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. His No. 24 ranking should come with an asterisk, or perhaps a question mark. When Roethlisberger is healthy, he's a top-five quarterback. When he's not, he plays like a bottom-five quarterback. You can argue that he's underrated because he has two Super Bowl rings and is hitting his prime at the age of 31. But you can make a case for him being ranked too high because his body has taken too many hits and he has faded the past two seasons.

I'm sure some are thinking that Roethlisberger's injuries shouldn't cloud his standing in the NFL. But when it comes to Roethlisberger, you have to factor them in because it determines his effectiveness. Plus, it's impossible to think about Big Ben without picturing him limping or wincing in pain. Since the 2011 season, here's a list of his injuries: foot, thumb, hand, ankle, shoulder and ribs. It would be easier to list what he hasn't hurt.

The major reason the Steelers haven't won the division or a playoff game the past two seasons has been a banged-up Big Ben. Before Roethlisberger suffered serious injuries in 2011 and 2012, the Steelers were 16-7 (.695) in games he started. And, while it's admirable and tough that he eventually returned, Roethlisberger and the Steelers weren't the same, going a combined 2-5 (.285).

In 2011, Roethlisberger ranked seventh in QBR (64.8) with 21 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in the first 14 games. But after he suffered a high ankle sprain, Roethlisberger lost two of his final three starts, including a wild-card game at Denver. During that rut, he ranked 22nd in QBR (41.7), with one touchdown and four interceptions.

It was essentially a replay in 2012, albeit a different injury. Even though there had been questions of a spat with new offensive coordinator Todd Haley, Roethlisberger looked like an MVP candidate in the first nine games, completing 66.1 percent of his passes and throwing 17 touchdowns to four interceptions. His QBR was 71.8, which was fifth best in the NFL. After he injured his shoulder and ribs, he connected on 56.4 percent of his throws, with nine touchdowns and four interceptions. Uncharacteristically, he struggled at crucial points late in games and posted a 38.8 QBR, 23rd in the league.

The Steelers have done their best to keep Roethlisberger healthy. They've invested two first-round picks (center Maurkice Pouncey and guard David DeCastro) and two second-rounders (tackles Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert) in their offensive line to better protect him. They hired Haley as offensive coordinator to install a quick-hitting passing game that limits the time Roethlisberger has the ball in the pocket and the number of hits he'll take.

Roethlisberger said his optimism level has increased because his young offensive line has had time to develop and he has become more comfortable in Haley's system.

"I feel like this year could be one of my best," Roethlisberger recently told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

This is a comeback year of sorts for Roethlisberger if you look at the national perception of him now. He is the No. 7 quarterback in ESPN's rankings, yet only one ahead of him has more Super Bowl wins (Tom Brady). Matt Ryan, who has one playoff victory, is two spots higher than Roethlisberger, who is 10-4 in the postseason.

Roethlisberger has watched other quarterbacks move past him financially as well. In 2008, he was the NFL's highest-paid player, averaging $12.75 million per season, with $33 million guaranteed. This year alone, Ryan ($18.95 average, with $59 million guaranteed), Joe Flacco ($20.1 million average, with $52 million guaranteed) and even Tony Romo ($17 million average, with $55 million guaranteed) have passed him.

If Roethlisberger has a strong season, he'll likely be in line for a new deal, given the fact that his salary-cap number is near $18 million. The challenge for Roethlisberger is to produce without his leaders in catches (tight end Heath Miller) and receiving yards (Mike Wallace) from a year ago. Wallace left for the Miami Dolphins in free agency, and Miller hasn't practiced since tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in January.

So, will Roethlisberger be ranked higher than No. 24 next year? If he can stay healthy, Roethlisberger will re-establish himself as an elite quarterback. If he can't, Roethlisberger and the Steelers will struggle again.