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Thursday, June 18, 2009
Updated: June 22, 2:37 PM ET
Best under 30? Don't forget Big Ben

By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

It was a conversation starter hatched by FoxSports.com and then predictably milked by the muck-stirrers on sports-talk radio, where almost every caller (including "Len from Snellville") has an incendiary opinion.

The premise: That Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, the NFL's 2008 offensive rookie of the year and a callow performer who resurrected a moribund franchise, is the league's premier under-30 franchise player.

It's the kind of subjective declaration that in the low-tech days would have been debated at the neighborhood bar, but it now serves as fodder on the Internet and almost everywhere else.

For the most part, the under-30 list is excellent, spotlighting two standout players whom most casual fans otherwise might not have considered: Cleveland offensive tackle Joe Thomas and Oakland cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. The complete breakdown: 10. New England linebacker Jerod Mayo; 9. Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald; 8. Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu, 7. Asomugha; 6. Washington defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth; 5. Dallas defensive end DeMarcus Ware; 4. Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson; 3. Thomas ; 2. Houston defensive end Mario Williams; and 1. Ryan.

Most NFL general managers would do almost anything to get their hands on just one of those players. But the exclusion of Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger is the major oversight.

I'm not the brightest bulb in the pack. And despite 30 years covering the NFL, I'm still not particularly good at putting things, especially players, in perspective. As is typically the case with such lists -- and we witness this annually with the often controversial Pro Bowl balloting -- it's a lot easier to cite the players who are snubbed than it is to delete those who were granted a spot among the elite.

Some notable omissions on this list: Linebacker Shawne Merriman (age 25) of San Diego; defensive ends Julius Peppers (29) of Carolina and Jared Allen (27) of Minnesota; wide receivers Calvin Johnson (24) from Detroit and Brandon Marshall (25) of Denver; St. Louis running back Steven Jackson (26); Carolina offensive tackle Jordan Gross (29); middle linebacker Patrick Willis (24) of San Francisco. Quarterbacks Philip Rivers (27) of San Diego, Eli Manning (28) of the New York Giants and maybe Joe Flacco (24) from Baltimore also could have been considered.

One could endlessly debate the worthiness of the players named and the identities of those people who might have been included. That's the beauty of such rankings.

But there is no debating that Roethlisberger belongs, maybe even at the top.

Make no mistake, Ryan is a splendid player, one who figures to get even better with more experience. In becoming the face of an otherwise faceless team and overcoming the twin fiascoes of quarterback Michael Vick and peripatetic coach Bobby Petrino, Ryan demonstrated his significance way beyond his performance on the field.

Amazingly, Ryan isn't just the top-rated franchise player on the list overall, but he's also the only quarterback on it. And that makes Roethlisberger's exclusion all the more incredible. In light of the popular opinion that quarterback is the game's most grueling position, it's pretty tough to imagine that a guy not named Manning or Brady and three years shy of the age-30 limit wasn't acknowledged.

All Roethlisberger has accomplished in five NFL seasons is two Super Bowl victories and a winning percentage of .718. He was 13-0 during as a rookie during the regular season and wasn't even the starter at the outset of the year. Also as a rookie, he led Pittsburgh to the AFC Championship Game, which it lost to New England.

While the argument for Roethlisberger is hardly an indictment of Ryan -- and he should be held up against all the franchise players selected for the top 10 -- it's only natural to compare numbers of the Pittsburgh star against those of the Atlanta standout.

To equal Roethlisberger's accomplishments to this point, Ryan must win two Super Bowl titles in the next four seasons and win at least 10 games per year from 2009 to 2012. That's a tall order for any quarterback, but it's not impossible.

One guy did it by age 27.

Even if some people didn't acknowledge it.

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.