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Will Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger be an undisputed NFL "elite" quarterback?

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In a look at the evolution of quarterbacks, ESPN's John Clayton gives his predictions on who will be the best of the best in the next three NFL seasons.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The era of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning is not over yet, but it certainly is in it's last few years.  Both quarterbacks were highly regarded as the best in the NFL for many years and were consistently held at the "elite" standard of the NFL.

However, with both players soon to be 40 years of age, the "elite" title has already begun to have new placeholders in the NFL. Aaron Rodgers is consistently regarded as part of the best of the best in the league, but who else will join him? Roethlisberger was tied with Drew Brees in passing yardage in the NFL for 2014, has two Super Bowl rings, but still doesn't get consistent respect as among the league's top class of quarterbacks.  But with Ben growing wiser every season as he enters his 12th year in the league, and now having the most complete offense of his career, will that change?

That question was taken up by ESPN's John Clayton, when he ranked which quarterbacks would be the best in the NFL over the next three seasons.

2015: 1. Rodgers, 2. Brady, 3. Luck, 4. Roethlisberger, 5. Manning, 6. Brees, 7. Rivers, 8. Wilson.

2016: 1. Rodgers, 2. Luck, 3. Brady, 4. Roethlisberger, 5. Brees, 6. Wilson, 7. Ryan, 8. Flacco.

2017: 1. Rodgers, 2. Luck, 3. Roethlisberger, 4. Brady, 5. Wilson, 6. Ryan, 7. Flacco, 8. Newton.

If you missed it, Clayton sees Rodgers as the best quarterback in the league, but behind him is a rotation of some of the league's best offensive leaders. Andrew Luck is one of the golden boys of the NFL, so expecting him to continue to improve after he just led the NFL with 40 touchdowns in 2014 isn't far-fetched.

Traditionally the "elite" class of quarterbacks is reserved to the top three players at the position in the league. Roethlisberger has usually hung around the edge of the top five in the rankings, but even in the eyes of one of ESPN's most reliable reporters on the status of the AFC North, he might not reach that level for another three seasons.

When looking at the top quarterbacks according to ESPN's QBR from 2014 the top eight looked as such:

1. Tony Romo 82.75
2. Aaron Rodgers 82.64
3. Peyton Manning 77.25
4. Tom Brady 74.32
5. Ben Roethlisberger 72.48
6. Drew Brees 71.56
7. Eli Manning 70.93
8. Joe Flacco 67.34

Note that Andrew Luck is nowhere to find on this list and that all the quarterbacks here are in their 30's now. But looking at what happened in 2014 and what Clayton sees in the near future, the following observations can be deduced:

1. Roethlisberger's play will continue to ascend, but not enough to make him the best in the league.  2014 was his best statistical season yet, as he threw 32 touchdowns and only 9 interceptions. In the coming seasons he will have an offense with three teammates who made first team All-Pro for the Associated Press in Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell and Maurkice Pouncey.

2. His exclusion of Romo from any of his lists shows that he doesn't think Romo's career season won't be seen again soon without Demarco Murray in his offense.  Romo's 34 touchdown passes was the fourth best in the league last season and earned him a spot on the second team of the Associated Press' All-Pro squad.

3. Andrew Luck will be the leading quarterback of the future for the AFC. The conference that has seen Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady dueling it out in big games several times over the past decade, and still has Manning and Brady, will see Luck ascend to the undisputed best quarterback in the league.

There are other things that can be taken away from his lists, but looking at Roethlisberger it's apparent that his talents will continue to be on the fringe of the NFL's most elite quarterbacks, according to Clayton.

But early in the Steelers' season, the offense was still looking for it's supporting cast of receivers that would eventually become a major part of the offense.  In the early weeks Justin Brown was getting snaps along with Markus Wheaton. But after the offense started to include Martavis Bryant along with a healthy Lance Moore, Roethlisberger had four effective wid receivers and his numbers significantly increased for three weeks.

In the six weeks prior to the week 7 showdown vs. the Houston Texans, Roethlisberger threw eight touchdowns and three interceptions. In the next three weeks, he would throw 14 touchdowns and zero interceptions; the best three-game stretch of his career.

The problem that led to Roethlisberger not making All-Pro was in part due to his next three game stretch. He would throw only four touchdowns and five interceptions (more than half of his nine all season) against three teams that finished 4-12, 7-9 and 2-14.

Even the greatest of players will have bad games, but stretches like that cannot happen if Ben is to attain the "elite" credentials and end all debate of whether he is worthy or not.  Though the team was able to beat the Tennessee Titans, Roethlisberger's lackluster performance was forgotten thanks to a dominating performance from Le'Veon Bell. Had he played better against the New York Jets, the Steelers would have clinched a bye week in the playoffs.

Those types of stretches have always seem to hit Roethlisberger at some point in any of his seasons. Now with his new arsenal of experienced weapons added with his experience in the NFL, his stretches of mediocre play could decrease to shorter spans.

Consistency will be the key for Roethlisberger to prove to be better than the expectations of those such as Clayton. He doesn't need to put up 14 touchdowns every three games, but if he can consistently put up solid numbers and ultimate weapon of the Steelers offense, with players like Bell and Brown also being superstars, then Roethlisberger may finally surpass the expectations that have been labeled upon him by those outside of Steeler nation.