2017 AFL preview series: Essendon Bombers – 15th

Cameron Rose Columnist

By Cameron Rose, Cameron Rose is a Roar Expert

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    Essendon were the easiest side to predict last year, while this time around they are clearly one of the biggest mysteries of the upcoming season.

    With 12 players serving drug suspensions, the vast majority of which were part of their best 22, the Dons were a lock to finish in the bottom two or three, and most probably the wooden spoon, which is how it panned out.

    Most of the suspended players return, but it remains to be seen how many of them will be part of the Bombers’ best side. It should be at least six, and perhaps up to seven or eight. Michael Hibberd has departed to Melbourne.

    Essendon Bombers’ best 22

    B Mark Baguley Mitch Brown Matt Dea
    HB Martin Gleeson Michael Hurley Brent Stanton
    C Brendon Goddard Jobe Watson David Zaharakis
    HF Ben Howlett Cale Hooker Aaron Francis
    F Travis Colyer Joe Daniher Orazio Fantasia
    Foll Matthew Leuenberger Dyson Heppell Zach Merrett
    Int Darcy Parish Andrew McGrath James Kelly Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti

    Emergencies: James Stewart, Craig Bird, David Myers

    Joe Daniher Brendon Goddard AFL Essendon Bombers 2016 tall

    Now, Essendon are a mix of the old (Jobe Watson, Brent Stanton, Brendon Goddard, James Kelly) and the new (Andrew McGrath, Darcy Parish, Aaron Francis, Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti). There are stars coming back from suspension (Michael Hurley, Dyson Heppell, Cale Hooker), and those that thrived in their absence (Zach Merrett, Orazio Fantasia, Michael Hartley, Matt Dea).

    The backline looks light-on for star quality outside Hurley, particularly with Hooker’s anticipated move to the forward-line, denying the Bombers potentially the most formidable key defensive duo in the league.

    But, coach John Worsfold does have plenty of backline options. Outside the players named in the back six above, but still in the best 22, Goddard, Kelly, McDonald-Tipungwuti and McGrath will all likely run through there at various stages. Patrick Ambrose and Hartley may get called upon too.

    Essendon’s engine room may look imposing if taking the names on paper at their career peak, but how likely is this to be the case?

    Zach Merrett is a star, and will only get better. He’s the one given. Heppell was slightly overrated before his year off, but is still a very good player and will be hungry. Goddard is still effective, but his days as a game-breaker are long gone.

    Zaharakis will enjoy having more experienced support around him once more, but it’s been a long time since he looked like he was enjoying his footy. Ben Howlett and Heath Hocking are hardened, but are no more than honest battlers who may be on the fringes anyway.

    Jobe Watson will retire a champion player and noble statesman of the game, irrespective of his Brownlow medal being stripped away, but was looking a yard off the pace before he went down injured in 2015. It is entirely possible the mental strain of the entire drugs saga had taken too big a toll, and hopefully he can be fresh and firing again. Question marks must linger though.

    Essendon Bombers coach James Hird celebrates with Jobe Watson. Photo: Will Russell

    It would be folly to expect full 22-game seasons from the returning players. Some will suffer injuries as their bodies once more adapt to the rigours of an AFL season. Others will have niggles they just can’t shake, which will affect performance. Not all will come back chock full of confidence they can do what they once did.

    Kicking a regular winning score will be a struggle for the Dons, even if they move the ball forward with more purpose than in Worsfold’s first year.

    Joe Daniher has special talents, but will always be erratic. Better and more frequent delivery to him will help, and if he’s not kicking 50-plus goals this season, he will have failed.

    Travis Colyer and Orazio Fantasia will add bite at ground level where they can. Josh Green will try and force his way into the side, and knows how to kick multiple goals. He also has experience trying to manufacture scoring opportunities in struggling sides.

    Looking at Essendon’s best side, there is a gap in the list profile, which can be traced back to the off-season of 2014.

    Adam Cooney, James Gwilt and Jonathon Giles were acquired from other clubs but are no longer at the Bombers. Kyle Langford and Jayden Laverde were both top-20 picks but are currently on Kenny Rogers’ train bound for nowhere. Perhaps ‘The Gambler’ will be backing these players to rise up a few levels, but not many others will.

    Even looking back to the end of 2013, the Dons traded for Paul Chapman, Shaun Edwards and Kurt Aylett, all of whom are gone with little to no value added. In fact, they haven’t had a trade ‘hit’ since Adam McPhee back in 2002.

    The club has been committing to neither one thing nor the other, and while the drugs saga has made things more difficult, the lack of clarity and purpose may hurt them now.

    So while the Bombers have some things in their favour coming into the 2017 season, they also have several things against. The returning players are a double-edged sword.

    Every football fan is glad the drugs saga is behind Essendon and the competition, and this is the year the Bombers completely reintegrate into the competition. This season can be used to find out where they sit in the overall pecking order of the competition, and they’ll have to make some hard decisions at the end of it as to what the future looks like.

    Predicted ladder spread: 13th-16th

    Predicted finish: 15th

    Best and fairest: Zach Merrett

    Leading goalkicker: Joe Daniher

    All-Australian potential: Michael Hurley, Zach Merrett

    Rising Star candidates: Aaron Francis, Andrew McGrath

    Cam Rose’s AFL preview series ladder

    15th – Essendon
    16th – North Melbourne
    17th – Carlton
    18th – Brisbane

    Cameron Rose
    Cameron Rose

    Cameron Rose is a born and bred Melbournian, raised on a regime of AFL, cricket and horse racing. He likes people who agree with him but loves those that don't, for there's nothing better than a roaring debate. He tweets from @camtherose.

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    The Crowd Says (27)

    • March 2nd 2017 @ 8:17am
      Ian said | March 2nd 2017 @ 8:17am | ! Report

      Hartley will play ahead of Brown – he held the backline together last year and is better playing on the larger forwards, which can free up Hurley to have more license in the back half. Brown will be around as a third-tall/swingman, although Ambrose did pretty well as a backman last year as well. Also think you underrate Langford and Laverde – both have very good AFL attributes (Laverde was a pretty big target for the Saints in trade time last year) and are highly rated internally. Think one or both will start ahead of Francis and McGrath, particularly given that both aren’t quite ready for AFL just yet.

      Other than that, pretty good best 22. As an Essendon supporter I think we’ll be a lot better than 15th, but then I’m biased, so what do I know.

      • March 2nd 2017 @ 9:11am
        Rissole said | March 2nd 2017 @ 9:11am | ! Report

        Very very harsh on Langford and Laverde. Both very good youngsters.

      • Columnist

        March 2nd 2017 @ 5:01pm
        Cameron Rose said | March 2nd 2017 @ 5:01pm | ! Report

        All solid points Ian. I don’t mind Hartley, I was swapping and changing between him and Brown. Thought Brown offered more versatility, in that he could swap with Hooker.

        Ambrose is no good.

        • March 2nd 2017 @ 6:13pm
          Aransan said | March 2nd 2017 @ 6:13pm | ! Report

          Cameron, Ambrose had a very good year last year when switched to the backline. He is a good match up for a forward with a lot of endurance.

          • Columnist

            March 2nd 2017 @ 9:25pm
            Cameron Rose said | March 2nd 2017 @ 9:25pm | ! Report

            To me he’s a forward dud who played okay when shifted back. If I’m a key forward, I’m licking my lips seeing him come my way.

      • March 2nd 2017 @ 6:11pm
        Aransan said | March 2nd 2017 @ 6:11pm | ! Report

        Ian, I believe McGrath will play in most games this year, otherwise I agree with everything you have said.

    • Columnist

      March 2nd 2017 @ 10:06am
      Ryan Buckland said | March 2nd 2017 @ 10:06am | ! Report

      Alright, tomorrow is where things will get interesting re your ladder Rose. I think it is reasonably clear that these are the bottom four, although North and Essendon could work their way into the next tier and make that tier bigger. The team that finishes 14th this year has a strong chance to be a good team.

      • March 2nd 2017 @ 12:52pm
        Pope Paul VII said | March 2nd 2017 @ 12:52pm | ! Report

        Have you crunched your numbers yet Ryan? Or are you waiting for Cam and Josh to spill their guts first?

        • Columnist

          March 2nd 2017 @ 1:21pm
          Ryan Buckland said | March 2nd 2017 @ 1:21pm | ! Report

          I’ll put a ladder out on the Wednesday before opening night I reckon. My method these days is a hybrid of spreadsheet and guts…

          • March 2nd 2017 @ 2:21pm
            Pope Paul VII said | March 2nd 2017 @ 2:21pm | ! Report

            tops

      • Columnist

        March 2nd 2017 @ 5:00pm
        Cameron Rose said | March 2nd 2017 @ 5:00pm | ! Report

        Yeah, I think that’s a fair summation. Any team I’ve got from 9th to 14th wouldn’t shock me if they made the eight.

    • March 2nd 2017 @ 11:39am
      Birdman said | March 2nd 2017 @ 11:39am | ! Report

      Good analysis Cameron. The Dons could be a smokey in 2017 but I expect they will taper late in the season and finish in the bottom half dozen.

      That Fantasia kid looks particularly special based on glimpses last year.

      BTW you picked a bad day to post this preview with the war on the AFLW raging elsewhere 🙂

      • Roar Guru

        March 2nd 2017 @ 12:42pm
        Paul D said | March 2nd 2017 @ 12:42pm | ! Report

        I’m sure Essendon supporters won’t mind their club being out of the spotlight for a change

        • Roar Guru

          March 2nd 2017 @ 12:46pm
          AdelaideDocker said | March 2nd 2017 @ 12:46pm | ! Report

          I’m confident in saying that if it wasn’t for the AFLW BS elsewhere someone would’ve turned this article into a doping or anti-Hird piece, knowing this website.

          • Roar Guru

            March 2nd 2017 @ 1:11pm
            Cat said | March 2nd 2017 @ 1:11pm | ! Report

            I can start some supplements BS if you prefer. Easy to rile up the delusional apologists.

            • Editor

              March 2nd 2017 @ 1:14pm
              Josh Elliott said | March 2nd 2017 @ 1:14pm | ! Report

              • Columnist

                March 2nd 2017 @ 5:05pm
                Cameron Rose said | March 2nd 2017 @ 5:05pm | ! Report

                Ha, gold Josh.

                Thanks Birdman. I’ll have to check out the AFLW piece.

    • Editor

      March 2nd 2017 @ 1:18pm
      Josh Elliott said | March 2nd 2017 @ 1:18pm | ! Report

      Don’t think our opinions on the Dons could be further apart Cam, unless maybe if they were somehow also North Melbourne. I’ll write up my thoughts in more detail at some point but short version is they were a finals side in 2014 I think still have most of the best talent from that time + a bunch of youthers ready to lift + most important a gun coach, for the first time (bar the 2014 Thompson one-off) for the first time since Sheedy.

      • Columnist

        March 2nd 2017 @ 5:06pm
        Cameron Rose said | March 2nd 2017 @ 5:06pm | ! Report

        Yeah, it’s certainly a fair take. I was more bullish about them a while back, but started to slow down the closer I got to writing this series. They just kept falling. As I say, they’re a mystery.

        So just to clarify, I’ve got North and Essendon bottom four, and you’ve got them top four, yes?

    • Roar Guru

      March 2nd 2017 @ 1:37pm
      Pumping Dougie said | March 2nd 2017 @ 1:37pm | ! Report

      Good article Cam. Very hard to predict where Essendon will finish, with so many unknowns about how the returning players will perform and how the whole side will mesh together. Plus, Worsfold’s final years at West Coast suggested to me he was falling behind the eight ball a bit, as far as game strategy. He’s done a great job with Essendon, but his strengths have been in player management, player development and club leadership. I think his matchday coaching nous in today’s game, now that he has a decent team to work with, is another unknown.

      I don’t know much about Hartley and Laverde, but from what I read about them last year I would assume like other posters here they would be in Essendon’s best 22, particularly Hartley ahead of Brown.

      Keep the articles coming, they’re great.

      • Columnist

        March 2nd 2017 @ 5:07pm
        Cameron Rose said | March 2nd 2017 @ 5:07pm | ! Report

        Thanks PD. They are a very interesting case, the Dons, and as you say, it will be interesting to assess Worsfold’s game plan this year.

    • March 2nd 2017 @ 5:58pm
      Lofty said | March 2nd 2017 @ 5:58pm | ! Report

      Well written article again. Your last paragraph covered their situation spot on. With the Blues and Lions you pretty much know what you will get but the Bombers have so many unknowns. They have a good coach in Worsfold but we will see how he goes this year balancing the returning players and the young talent. Although I don’t see a lot of Essendon games [I live in WA] what I have seen of Heppell has been very good. He was quite young when the saga first started which would not have helped his development.

      • Columnist

        March 2nd 2017 @ 9:29pm
        Cameron Rose said | March 2nd 2017 @ 9:29pm | ! Report

        Thanks Lofty. Yep, a mysterious quantity this year, the Dons. As Josh commented above, people are entitled to think they will push for finals.

        Heppell’s a good player, don’t get me wrong, but wasn’t a gun yet. May still get there.

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