- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Ben Roethlisberger doesn't get it.
Roethlisberger was the big man on campus at the University of Miami (Ohio) last season. He was a 6-foot-4 7/8 quarterback who weighed 241 pounds with an arm as strong as any in college football.
Nevertheless, this "Big Mac" is starting to get the feeling he's being considered a "McNugget." Like so many players before him, Roethlisberger hears the criticism his value may be discounted because he comes from a smaller school.
"Take a look at their playbook," said Roethlisberger's agent, Leigh Steinberg. "They have a playbook as advanced as any you are going to find in college. Still, he gets hit with the small-college criticism."
Like Byron Leftwich a year ago, this big quarterback from a mid-major conference plays a big role in the first round of next Saturday's NFL draft. He affects the order.
The Chargers will likely stay put at No. 1 and select Eli Manning. The Raiders and Cardinals have been tabbed as teams that need quarterbacks, but they are likely to pass on Roethlisberger. The Raiders want to stay with their long-time veteran, Rich Gannon. Cardinals coach Dennis Green says you don't need a blue-chip quarterback to build a playoff contender and will stay with Josh McCown.
That leaves the Giants with the fourth choice as the next option for Roethlisberger. The Giants already have a quarterback, Kerry Collins, whose contract expires at the end of the season. But the Giants covet left tackle Robert Gallery and will take him if he's available at No. 4 or try to trade up to get him (or Manning) and might try to move up to get him. If that happens, the Giants can continue negotiating a long-term deal with Collins.
So where does that leave Roethlisberger? He will head into a free fall, possibly past the 10th spot, all the way to the Pittsburgh Steelers at No.11. It happened a year ago. The Bengals drafted Carson Palmer of USC with the first pick. The Dallas Cowboys, with the fifth pick, wanted to stay with Quincy Carter.
Leftwich, from Marshall, started to fall. It took a crazy period in which the Vikings blew the 15 minute selection time after a failed trade attempt with the Ravens for the Jaguars to jump up and take Leftwich with the seventh pick.
The only team that can save Roethlisberger is the Browns, who just signed Jeff Garcia to a $25 million contract and are trying to trade Tim Couch, a former top pick in the draft, to the Green Bay Packers.
Butch Davis wants Gallery, tight end Kellen Winslow or Sean Taylor. But for one of those players to be available, Roethlisberger needs to go in the top four. But if all those players are gone and Roethlisberger is still on the board, the Browns could have a hard time passing on him.
The Steelers sensed the potential of a Roethlisberger fall and flew him into Pittsburgh earlier this week to get to know him. At No. 11, the Steelers would also consider Philip Rivers even though their need is for a cornerback.
"Why do you think we had him come into town?" said Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert. "He would be a player to consider if he falls to us."
It's not the player, it's the level of players Roethlisberger played against that appears to be the biggest knock. Quarterbacks from smaller schools supposedly need a longer conversion time than quarterbacks from big schools. However, last year's first-rounders prove the theory to be flawed.
Of the four rookies, Leftwich had the best statistics. He completed 57.2 percent of his passes. Kyle Boller of the Ravens completed only 51.8 yards. Rex Grossman threw only 72 passes, completing 38. Palmer watched while Central Washington's Jon Kitna took the Bengals to eight wins.
The Jaguars gambled in playing Leftwich early and watched him complete 239 passes for 2,819 yards and win over the team, allowing them to trade Mark Brunell. Even though he came from the smaller school, Leftwich showed he was ready for the first-year experiment.
"It's a big knock on myself that we play in the MAC," Roethlisberger said. "Then I just say look at Byron Leftwich, Randy Moss, Chad Pennington (all former Marshall players). They've done it and they're doing it now. They kind of paved the
road for people like myself."
Only circumstances prevented Roethlisberger from being at a big school such as Ohio State. He had to play wide receiver as a junior in high school because the coach's son was the starting quarterback. Once Ryan Hite graduated from Findlay (Ohio) High, Roethlisberger got his chance but he didn't have the back-to-back seasons to attract the big school offers.
"Because I didn't play quarterback until my senior year of high school, I didn't get a lot of big-time schools recruiting me," Roethlisberger said. "Miami was the first school to recruit me. They recruited me right
before the first game of my senior year."
Coming from a blue-collar family -- his father manages an oil filter production plant -- Roethlisberger believes in loyalty. Miami-Ohio was the first to recruit him, so he stayed loyal to the school. It gave him an appreciation of the little things. To save money, Roethlisberger cut his own hair. Roethlisberger started doing that as a kid when his parents told him he had to pay for his own haircuts.
Roethlisberger took particular pride in how the MAC teams gave the Big Ten and other big schools tough times.
"The first game of the year, we lost to Iowa but then we went on and beat Northwestern and Colorado State, teams like that we play," Roethlisberger said. "We've opened up against Michigan, we played Iowa three years in a road. I think it does help for the naysayers who say the MAC doesn't play anybody."
Had it not been for the coach's son in high school, Roethlisberger would have had that extra year of development to earn scholarship offers from Big Ten schools. By the way, what ever ended up happening to Hite, Findlay's starting quarterback during his junior year?
"He went on to play receiver at Denison University in Ohio," Roethlisberger said.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.