Let’s face it, these lists are little more than an exercise in self indulgence. So without further ado. here’s mine.
50. Jarryd Roughead
If the new Hawthorn skipper gets back to even 90 per cent of the player he was in 2015, he’ll easily end the season as a top 50 player. Couldn’t bring myself to leave him off.
49. Lachie Neale
There are a heap of quality midfielders for whom you can make a case to be on this list – Zach Merrett, Travis Boak, Luke Dahlhaus, Tom Mitchell, Dayne Zorko to name just a handful – but the line has to be drawn somewhere. Neale got more of the footy than anyone last season and does a power of work at the stoppages. He belongs.
48. Rory Laird
The perfect small-medium defender for modern defence. Laird reads the play well, is an excellent ball user and decision maker, and is much better in the air than his 178cm frame would suggest.
47. Stephen Hill
If you were to create a wingman in a laboratory, Stephen Hill would be the result. The best outside midfielder in footy.
46. Isaac Heeney
This is more of a projection than a reflection of the player he is right now. His current illness is a bit of a worry, but by the end of the season, I suspect Heeney will be one of the most impactful players in the AFL. Tough, skilful and athletic – he’ll be a top-10 player.
45. Matt Priddis
This might be too low. Priddis was top-five for average clearances, contested possessions and tackles last season. He’s a beast inside.
44. Stephen Coniglio
One of the best two-way mids in the competition. Took his game to another level last year. The Giants will miss him early in the season.
43. Michael Hurley
42. Robbie Tarrant
41. Daniel Talia
40. Harry Taylor
You’re in good shape with any of these guys holding down the key defensive post. All of them are willing to leave their man and help out when required. Hurley has the highest upside, but is also the biggest unknown after a year out of the game. Taylor is the best ball user of the bunch.
39. Luke Hodge
The triple-premiership skipper is nearing the end, but he’s still one of the game’s most versatile players. His toughness is known to all, his kicking is supreme and he’s capable of impacting the game from almost any position.
38. Heath Shaw
The 31-year-old is playing the best football of his career. A very capable defender who does his best work with ball in hand, Shaw’s near-refusal to handball (averaged 21 kicks and three handballs in 2016) makes him a unique throwback in today’s handball-heavy league. Crucial to the Giants’ premiership hopes.
37. Dayne Beams
A beautifully balanced player capable of doing damage on the inside and the outside – and he knows where the goals are. Only thing stopping him from being at least 15 positions higher is his injury history.
36. Jack Steven
35. Luke Shuey
Accumulators who can win their own footy and have an attacking mindset. Steven has a rare combination of pace and endurance, Shuey is superior clearance player who had taken the mantle as West Coast’s best midfielder – had.
34. Easton Wood
33. Dane Rampe
The ability to win the ball back from opponents is one of the most valuable in the game, and these are two of the best in the business. Premiership captain Wood’s first quarter of last year’s preliminary final was a master class – until whatever was injected into his ankle wore off. Rampe gets the edge for his durability and ability to play on bigger opponents.
32. Jeremy Cameron
Cameron is really, really good, but for him to join the next tier of key forwards, he needs to have more consistent impact on games. Averaged only 11 disposals and 3.6 marks last season – has he improved since his second season?
31. Patrick Cripps
30. Jesse Hogan
Two of the best young players in the competition, Cripps an inside monster and immovable object at the stoppages, Hogan a brutal key forward not afraid to throw his weight around. I suspect both will be higher 12 months from now.
29. Todd Goldstein
Had a slight drop off last year after his near-perfect 2015, but he’s still a game changer and one of the few ruckmen who truly matter.
28. Jack Gunston
Quick 2016 player comparison:
Player A: 14.4 disposals, 6.7 marks, 2.2 marks inside 50, 1.9 contested marks, 2 goals per game
Player B: 16 disposals, 6.4 marks, 2.3 marks inside 50, 1.3 contested marks, 2.1 goals per game
If you guessed that Player A was Taylor Walker and Player B was Jack Gunston, you were right. For some reason, most likely his wiry frame, Gunston isn’t considered when discussing the best key forwards in the league – he should be.
27. Callan Ward
The 2016 narrative could be a very different one if the Giants skipper wasn’t knocked out early in the second quarter of the preliminary final. Tough as nails and has the skills to match.
26. Sam Mitchell
A modern great with a chip on his shoulder after being traded to another club? Yes please.
The most balanced footballer I’ve seen.
25. Adam Treloar
24. Dan Hannebery
Two tough midfielders who run all day and regularly have the ball in their hands. Treloar is more explosive, Hannebery runs harder both ways. Potential Brownlow medallists. It’s nitpicking from here.
23. Nick Riewoldt
If he could have found one more goal against the atrocious Lions in the final round last season, not only would it have been his first 10-goal haul, he would have also become the first player since Steve Johnson in 2011 to average 20 disposals and two goals a game. I don’t care how old he is until he gives me a reason to.
22. Jack Riewoldt
21. Taylor Walker
Always have a hard time splitting these two. Both are great targets when playing deep who convert well, both equally effective up the field because of their excellent hands and brilliant field kicking. Tex gets the slightest of edges because of his handballing – he’s Sam Mitchell-level great on both sides.
20. Jeremy McGovern
The second-best key defender in the game and closing the gap fast. An exceptional reader of the play with sticky hands and a powerful and accurate right leg to boot … this might be too low.
19. Luke Parker
One more goal last season and he would have joined a select group of players who in 2016 averaged at least 20 disposals, ten contested possessions and a goal a game. One of the most complete on-ballers in the league. Of midfielders, only Fyfe is better in the air.
18. Dylan Shiel
The best player on the most talented team in the league. A damaging ball user with explosive pace who can win his own footy in tight and clear the congestion.
17. Rory Sloane
The best two-way midfielder in the AFL. An uncompromising player who does everything well.
16. Eddie Betts
15. Cyril Rioli
The two best small forwards in the game. It’s bordering on farcical how good Betts is at creating goals – since he joined the Crows, only Josh Kennedy and Lance Franklin have booted more goals.
Rioli isn’t the goalkicker Betts is, but he’s a more complete player who makes his teammates better and puts the fear of god into any defender bold enough to run with the footy in his vicinity – he’s also more than a little dirty in the best possible way..
14. Josh Kennedy (West Coast)
His 82 goals last season after 80 in 2015 make him the only active player who has booted 80 goals in back-to-back seasons. Explosive on the lead with a great pair of hands and is one of the best set shots in the business.
13. Gary Ablett
Too high based on his past two seasons, but I’m too scared to have the champ any lower than this.
12. Dustin Martin
Took his ball-winning to another level last season, which came at the expense of goals – he’d averaged at least a goal a game in each of the previous five seasons – but he did set career-high marks for kicks, handballs, inside-50s, clearances and contested possessions. Can be a bit of a butcher by foot, but even so he is one of the very best and most damaging players in the league. Explosive.
11. Robbie Gray
I raised an eyebrow recently when Paul Roos said: “To take the next step, I’l love to see Gray in the midfield.” From 2014-2016, Robbie Gray averaged 25.7 disposals, 13.1 contested possessions and 6.5 clearances – If he’s not a midfielder, no one is.
His ability to find the goals shouldn’t be overlooked, of course. Gray is very comfortable and extremely dangerous in the forward 50. He was one of only three players to play more than 15 games last season and average at least 20 disposals, ten contested possessions and a goal a game – henceforth known as the 20-10-1 club.
10. Max Gawn
Established himself as the league’s premier ruckman last year. His tapwork is good and he uses the ball well for a big man, but what sets him apart is his marking. At 208cm, he’s capable of dominating a game in the air.
9. Josh Kennedy (Sydney)
An unstoppable inside monster whose grand final second quarter was pretty much perfect. Should take to the captaincy like a swan to water … sorry.
8. Joel Selwood
After a down 2015 – by his lofty standards – Selwood was back to his best in 2016. A complete player and great leader with a habit of stepping up when his team needs him most.
7. Marcus Bontempelli
Beyond the size and skill, there’s a certain gravity to Bontempelli; he controls the play when he has the footy and absorbs the attention of his opponents. At 193cm, he’s slowly learning to take advantage of his size when he moves forward. The second member of the 20-10-1 club. He’s only 21 – the sky’s the limit.
6. Scott Pendlebury
Speaking of gravity, Pendlebury has a similar hypnotic effect on opponents. Time seems to slow down when the ball is in his hands – his ability to freeze defenders and exploit their hesitation makes me giggle. Rarely wastes a possession and almost never plays a bad game.
5. Alex Rance
The best key defender since Matthew Scarlett. Rance reads the play like few can and sees angles that sometimes don’t even make sense on replay. Always backs himself. The Tigers would be in a world of pain without him.
4. Tom Lynch (Gold Coast)
An unstoppable one-on-one forward with frightening endurance and work rate for a man of his size (199cm and an alleged 98kg). Will be keeping defenders up at night for a long time to come.
3. Nat Fyfe
Could reclaim his place at the top of this list if his body holds up its end of the bargain. An overwhelming athlete capable of dominating around the footy and in the air as a forward like no one else can.
2. Patrick Dangerfield
The most explosive midfielder in the game, Dangerfield has relentless desire to move the ball forward. If he’s not unstoppable at stoppages he’s damn close to it. The third and final member of the 20-10-1 club.
1. Lance Franklin
Buddy should boot his 800th goal by May and is showing no signs of slowing down. He can crush an opponent’s spirit in so many ways, but is at his most damaging when he’s on the move up the ground where he can unload that cannon of a left leg at goal from seemingly anywhere goal side of centre. A combination or size, strength, power and agility that is impossible to defend one-on-one. His field kicking is brilliant. I think he’s the best player in the league.