With less than one week to go until the start of the AFL season proper, here’s one player from each team who could be set for a breakout year.
Adelaide – Curtly Hampton
In his 51 games for GWS, Hampton showed glimpses of talent but failed to crack a regular spot in a talent-laden side. The Giants were flush for running half-backs and speedy utilities, so Hampton sought a move to the Crows at the end of 2015.
His first year in Adelaide began in underwhelming fashion, with injury keeping him out of action until midway through the season. He made his SANFL debut in Round 15, playing every game thereafter and working his way into some good form, averaging 17 disposals per game as he played off both half-back and through the middle.
Hampton took this good form into the JLT series, where he played every game and ranked second in the competition for total pressure acts, with 67, as well as fourth for goal assists and sixth for score assists. He was also third at the Crows for contested possessions and second for clearances.
The recent spate of injuries to Adelaide’s key midfielders is likely to see half-back Rory Laird spend more time in the middle – his recent good form should see Hampton establish himself in a half-back role while also pushing up onto a wing.
Brisbane – Jake Barrett
Another GWS offcast, Barrett came to the Lions at the end of 2016 in search of more opportunities after playing only one game in his time at GWS, despite excellent form in the NEAFL and a knack for accumulating contested possessions.
Barrett played mainly as a small forward in the JLT series, a role he could make his own given Brisbane’s dearth of options in that position.
He found a bit of the ball and looked lively, and has the class to become a regular AFL player. He is a rookie so will need to be elevated to play senior footy, but that should be a mere formality given the talent he brings to a list crying out for more class.
Carlton – Ciaran Sheehan
Since being drafted by Carlton in 2014 as a Category B rookie, Sheehan’s career has been cruelled by injury. He’s been restrict to just four senior games, the last of those coming in his debut year.
Injury concerns last year meant he played only four VFL games, but he displayed encouraging form, using his trademark pace off half-back and developing his consistency.
Sheehan showed enough in his AFL outings to suggest that, if he can get his body right, he could be the ideal replacement for Zach Tuohy off half-back – Sheehan plays in a similar style to his compatriot, and his pace is a real point of difference at Carlton, so opportunities beckon.
Collingwood – Tom Phillips
Phillips made his debut last year in the big Queen’s Birthday clash against Melbourne and looked like he belonged at the level, collecting 15 disposals. He went on to play six senior games for the year, averaging 17 disposals, 5.5 marks and 2.8 tackles, and was ranked 10th in the competition in goal assists per game.
His final two games, against Gold Coast in Round 22 and Hawthorn in Round 23, were particularly impressive – he gathered 47 disposals, 14 marks and seven tackles.
Phillips played all three JLT games and impressed with his ability to win the ball. His elite endurance and ball-winning ability should see him be given plenty of time in Collingwood’s engine room/half-forward flank
Essendon – Darcy Parish
This may seem like a strange selection given the excellent form Parish displayed in his rookie season, but I’m tipping him to have an even better season this year as he receives some much-needed midfield support from the returning banned Bombers.
In a team that finished on the bottom of the ladder with a cobbled-together midfield, Parish played 20 games and averaged 21 disposals, three marks and three tackles per game. Firmly establishing himself as a best-22 player.
With the likes of Jobe Watson, Dyson Heppell and Travis Colyer set to return, Parish may play more as a forward this season, but should continue his development alongside the senior players.
Fremantle – Darcy Tucker
A beneficiary of Ross Lyon’s newfound strategy of getting games into his team’s young players, Tucker played 12 games in his debut season and looked composed and assured off half-back, averaging 15 disposals, three marks and four tackles.
He finished the season on a strong note in Round 23 against the Western Bulldogs when he gathered 22 disposals, six marks and four tackles. He played all three JLT games and acquitted himself well.
With defender Tommy Sheridan looking set for a move to the midfield this season, Tucker has the chance to establish himself as one of Fremantle’s first-choice running defenders.
Geelong – Nakia Cockatoo
Cockatoo showed glimpses of his prodigious talent last year, playing ten games predominantly as a small forward. In that role, he averaged 12 possessions, three marks, four tackles and one goal per game. Were it not for injuries and suspension, he likely would have played more games.
Cockatoo was in excellent form in the JLT series, playing mainly through the midfield where his pace and class were obvious assets. He looks set for much more midfield time this season, and with the chance to ply his trade in the Cats’ engine room, I’m backing him to have a stellar year.
Gold Coast – Jack Martin
After several seasons hampered by injury, Martin showed in 2016 why he could develop into one of the AFL’s best players. The pacey utility played 21 games, averaging 16 disposals, six marks and four tackles, but what was most impressive was his ability to influence games, with the flashes of brilliance he displayed in previous seasons becoming more and more frequent.
He began the season in the forward line but shifted to defence to cover for the Suns’ injury crisis, where his poise and excellent disposal efficiency were on display for all to see. His ability to play all over the ground will be a definite advantage, and after a good JLT series, Martin looks set to take his game to a new level in 2017.
GWS – Jonathan Patton
Much like Martin, 2016 was Patton’s most consistent year yet, playing 23 games and kicking 38 goals, including four in the preliminary final loss to the Bulldogs. Alongside fellow spearhead Jeremy Cameron, Patton established himself as one of the best young key forwards in the competition and showed his competitive nature in spades.
He showed excellent form in the JLT series, and if he can lift his goal average from 1.6 in 2016 to around 2.5, Patton could be in the top handful of key forwards at season’s end.
Hawthorn – Teia Miles
If Miles’ form in the JLT series is anything to go by, he looks set for a good year in 2017. Yet to make his AFL debut, Miles was solid in the VFL last year, with his speed and ability to find the footy both excellent assets. In typical Hawthorn fashion, he is also a precise kick.
Miles’ ability to play all over the ground, which he has shown in the JLT series, will be a definite asset for the Hawks this year.
Melbourne – Christian Petracca
After two years in the AFL system, Petracca finally looks ready to take the competition by storm in 2017. He played well in his three games across the JLT series, playing through the midfield while also pushing into the forward line.
His toughness around the ball and ability to impact games will be a vital asset to Melbourne’s finals push this year. The fact Petracca averaged 17 disposals and kicked 12 goals in 17 games playing as a half-forward shows just how high his ceiling is – with more midfield time beckoning in 2017, the youngster looks set for a stellar year.
North Melbourne – Mason Wood
About to enter his fifth season in the AFL, Wood showed enough in his eight games last year – averaging 14 disposals and five marks per game and kicking 12 goals – to suggest he is set for an excellent 2017.
Wood’s early career has been beset by injury, and another injury in the first JLT game will set his year back a few weeks. Wood has the endurance to play on the wing, but as a lead-up third tall forward, he is also a point of difference for North Melbourne’s tall-heavy forward line, and if fit will get plenty of opportunities this season.
Port Adelaide – Logan Austin
There was no standout contender for Port Adelaide for this list, but I like the look of Logan, and based on his form last year, when he played as a tall defender and averaged eight disposals and three marks per game, he looks likely to consolidate his spot in the team this year.
Most pleasingly for Port Adelaide, he was ranked second in the competition for one-percenters per game, averaging nine per game.
Richmond – Toby Nankervis
Nankervis played well in his three JLT games, and with injury to Shaun Hampson and the departure of Ty Vickery to Hawthorn, he’s a lock for the Tigers’ number one ruck spot this season.
Nankervis displayed good form in his limited opportunities at Sydney (12 games in three years), and with a starting position guaranteed each week, he should only get better this year.
St Kilda – Jack Steele
Despite limited opportunities in his time at GWS, Steele showed his ability to rack up possessions, as well as demonstrating\ his hardness around the ball in the NEAFL.
His JLT form was excellent – after limited game time against Port Adelaide in the first round, he amassed 53 disposals and 20 tackles in the final two games. His strengths will complement the Saints’ on-ball brigade well, and he looks set for a big year as a best-22 player.
Sydney – Zak Jones
Given Jones played 16 games last year, averaging 15 disposals and three tackles, you could argue that 2016 was his breakout year. However, with Sydney keen to play Callum Mills more as a midfielder this year, there is an opportunity for Jones to make the running defender role his own. If he can continue his good JLT form in the 2017 season, he looks set to consolidate the gains he made last year.
West Coast – Elliot Yeo
This may seem a strange nomination given Yeo has now played 84 games and been in the system for five years, but his continuing development over the past few years indicates this could be the year that Yeo really establishes himself as one of the competition’s best midfielders.
He was in good form for the Eagles in the JLT series, and there’s no reason he can’t continue that form into the season proper. His ability to find the ball as a big-bodied midfielder should be an important asset for the Eagles this season.
Western Bulldogs – Marcus Adams
Adams played 11 games in his debut year in 2016 before being struck down by injury, and the mature-aged recruit looked right at home in the Bulldogs’ backline. His size and competitive nature complement the Bulldogs’ fleet of smaller, running defenders, and with the departure of Joel Hamling to Fremantle, Adams looks set to make the key defensive post his own this year.