Nat Fyfe’s free agency: The $6 million man’s next move is simpler than you think

Ryan Buckland Columnist

By Ryan Buckland, Ryan Buckland is a Roar Expert

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    The relatively short history of AFL free agency says top-five players move clubs. Even if you don’t think he’s been in All Australian form to date, there’s little doubt Fremantle’s Nat Fyfe is a top five player. Ergo…

    Since 2012, 58 players have changed clubs using the AFL’s free agency mechanism. The vast majority have been delisted players who found their way back on an AFL club list by signing on directly without re-entering the draft. They’ve mostly been of the role-player variety.

    The real prizes are in the restricted free agency pool – a class of player which grows by the year as more players have had the ability to build their contracts around the league’s free agency eligibility rules.

    Lance Franklin and Patrick Dangerfield are the two biggest names to have hit restricted free agency since it was introduced. Both are top-five players in the league, and both moved clubs: Franklin to Sydney and Dangerfield to Geelong (the latter via trade rather than using the restricted free agent matching process).

    This year’s class has two top five players: Fremantle’s Nat Fyfe and Richmond’s Dustin Martin.

    We will deal with Martin’s free agency in due course. Indeed, some of the discussion is likely to overlap given there is a finite amount of salary cap space to go around, and both players offer their own brand of midfield leadership that is ultimately a different shade of grey.

    Today, Fyfe is in the spotlight.

    Nat Fyfe Nathan Fyfe Fremantle Dockers Brownlow Medal AFL 2015

    AAP Image/Julian Smith

    His Fremantle side are an improbable 5-3 after a third close win from as many tries. After a very slow start – a moderately large loss to Geelong, and a significantly large loss to Port Adelaide – the Dockers changed tack and the wins have rolled in.

    The Dockers have since been one of the youngest sides in the competition since Round 3. Fremantle have been younger than their opponents in all but two games, one of those over the weekend against the Tigers following the reinsertion of veteran Danyle Pearce into the line up.

    This is of critical importance to what follows. Keep it in your back pocket. Before we get to Fyfe, one big question needs an answer: are Fremantle good at football again?

    Are Fremantle good?
    The answer, as ever, is this: it’s complicated.

    At face value, yes Fremantle are good at football again all of a sudden. They have won five of their past six games, a lone loss coming against West Coast in the derby.

    The Dockers are playing a more modern style of football than at any time in Ross Lyon’s tenure as head coach, moving laterally and in the past two weeks controlling the ball far more than their opponents. For the first time in his trip west, Lyon has a team with competent skill players, capable of offering more than raw effort and commitment to scheme.

    They are ranked seventh in turnover rate (disposals divided by turnovers) since Round 3, with a turnover every 5.7 disposals. If you said that a Ross Lyon coach team would be able to take care of the ball three years ago, you’d be laughed out of the room.

    The pressure is still there – particularly in defence, where Fremantle’s midfielders are rushing back in support like it is 2013 all over again. But there is a new dimension.

    Bradley Hill seems to be relishing the lead wingman role, gathering possessions at will and linking the Dockers up for four full quarters. He’s not Tom Scully, but he’s not as far off as it seems. Michael Walters’ shift to the midfield has proven similarly productive, also allowing the Dockers to run with a mobile, three-man tall-forward set which looks more fashion-forward by the week as it all gels.

    Michael Walters Fremantle Dockers AFL 2014

    AAP Image/Tony McDonough

    The signs are good – an old, languid and improbably-worn-out-after-two-rounds team has emerged as a young, modern and, dare I say,
    dynamic team. It is early, but the foreshadowed four-year plan is now off to a solid start.

    Still, the Dockers are not a 5-3 team. Their full year Pythagorean win total is 2.7 – meaning their win total has been boosted by a phenomenal 2.3 games through the first eight rounds. If a team records a positive Pythagorean tally of two or more over a full 22-game season, that’s usually a sign of regression. Even if we take the six weeks post-youth movement sample, the Dockers are outperforming by 1.8 wins during their 5-1 run.

    It’s all driven by their clutch of close wins. But still, Fremantle’s percentage is a much better guide of where they’re at as a football team. And you know what? It’s fine. This year was never the year, and neither was next year, or the year after that. 2020 is when this team turns once more for the home straight – and their new captain Nat Fyfe is at the heart of their race to the finish line.

    Enjoy the view
    You know about Fyfe – any thinking fan of the AFL acknowledges his extreme physical gifts, unique combination of ground-ball dominance and aerial prowess, and willingness to get his hands dirty. Fyfe is one of the most valuable players in the AFL, a Brownlow medallist not yet half way through his football career.

    His injury issues are well documented: slippery shoulders derailed his 2012 season, while a stress fracture gave way to a leg break in 2015, and a re-break in 2016 when a fibula reinforced with steel could not contain the G-forces of his hulking stride.

    Fyfe started 2017 on the slow side, not dissimilar to his team. The farther we travel from those first 13 games of 2015, when Fyfe polled 29 of a possible 39 Brownlow medal votes (yes indeed), the more it looks like an early-career apex. Over the year, Fyfe averaged a staggering 8.7 clearances, 17.8 contested possessions and 29 disposals per game, influencing the play with his heft and oversized hands that resemble jai alai cestas.

    Fyfe has two signature plays. The first is the most obvious: the one-on-one contested mark on a wing, Fyfe’s knees enveloping his hapless opponent’s neck and his bucket-like arms scooping the ball out of the air like you and I might catch a butterfly with a net. This is often followed by the non-descript half handball to a flanker running by the contest.

    The second is far more visceral, and fun. Fyfe’s hulking frame patrols a closed in stoppage, waiting for the ball to be tapped by a ruckman regardless of stripe. Then comes the gather, the coil, and the burst, Fyfe springing forward out of the front of a stoppage. His opponents – and sometimes his teammates – are either left in his wake or along for the ride, hanging on and trying to bring him down.

    Fyfe’s aggression is often underplayed, particularly compared to his contemporary in Martin. He’s as ruthless, just without the tatts.

    At the time of his Brownlow win, there were real conversations that put Fyfe’s ceiling as a walk-up hall of famer. He’s 25 now, turning 26 halfway through this year’s finals series, with 125 games of football on his odometer. This is his eighth year in the league – another eight would take him to a 33-year-old season, an average of say 17 games per season (his career mark) would take him to a hair over 250 games played. It’s reasonable to assume he is almost precisely halfway through his professional career.

    Indeed, Fyfe’s counting stats may have settled at a less-than-stratospheric level. Through eight games, Fyfe has averaged 5.6 clearances, 15 contested possessions and 26 disposals. His clearance numbers are likely down because of the improvement in Lachie Neale’s game, and more open stance the Dockers have adopted at stoppages around the ground. He’s currently ranked tenth in the league for centre-bounce clearances, a ranking that will rise as he continues to work his way into his best form.

    In other words, he’s still Nat Fyfe, just not 2015 Nat Fyfe, which is probably an unfair point of comparison.

    Still, at this less-than-godly level, Fyfe’s influence on Fremantle’s game is clear. He demands a direct match up, creating space for his teammates to work. His 15 contested possession wins per game are numerically fewer than his nearly-18 a game in 2015, but are still good enough to put him in the top five in the competition. He’s still the only player in the competition to win five clearances and take more than 1.5 contested marks per game.

    Another consideration on Fyfe’s counting stats: he is playing as a permanent forward more regularly, a tactic head coach Ross Lyon used to turn to as a change up becoming a more regular affair. Like his presence in the middle, Fyfe demands a match up as a ground ball and aerial threat inside forward 50 – as Richmond found out on a couple of occasions over the weekend.

    Fyfe is the point-running midfielder every team aspires to draft and develop – or acquire for plenty of consideration. Teams are built on the backs of Fyfe and his band of football gods; Fremantle are a case in point.

    The nitty gritty of a Fyfe free agency
    Moderately long story short, Fyfe in 2017 remains one of the best and most sought after playing assets in the competition. His latest injury issues were contact related, even if you believe his muscle mass was a factor. His strongest attributes are his most unique features as a footballer. There’s little wonder his free agency is a matter of great interest to every team in the competition.

    Five years in, we all know how this game works. Valuable free agents will never, ever, sign in-season. The incentive structure is geared towards testing the market during the defined free agency window, which happens in the off season. An uncertain labour relations environment – where clubs still have no idea what they’re paying their players this season, let alone in future seasons – means any player with currency will keep their pen in their pocket.

    Indeed, the latest mail suggests the AFL has offered its players a one-off 20 per cent bump in pay, followed by five years of very small guaranteed increases. If that is the case, players coming out of contract this season could carve themselves a nice helping of a spiking salary cap.

    To make matters even more complex, the macro environment of the competition moves closer to near-parity on the field by the week. A high-profile player transaction could shift the chess pieces in any number of directions. There has never been a better time to be a top-five player and a free agent at the same time.

    There is little doubt Fremantle are first in line to secure Fyfe’s services for the long run. Every decision the Dockers have made over the past 12 months has been framed by Fyfe’s free agency:

    • Re-signing coach Lyon, whom Fyfe has a strong rapport based on what we see and hear, through the prime of Fyfe’s career.
    • Trading in four players (Hill, Shane Kersten, Joel Hamling and Cam McCarthy) whom will hit their prime as Fyfe is in his.
    • The playing squad electing Fyfe captain, with club politics surely playing a role.
    • The clear line-in-the-sand moment after their Round 2 loss at the hands of Port Adelaide, when a range of veterans were removed from the team and replaced by players who would be around for the next four years and beyond.

    While the salary cap is set to spike for his potential suitors, it is also set to spike for Fremantle, who have had just as long to prepare for Fyfe’s decision as the rest of the competition. They know how valuable he is – Fyfe has played 125 games for the club – and will know what that translates to from a contract perspective.

    There is no Mogg’s Creek. Fyfe grew up in Lake Grace, a country town 350 kilometres east of Perth, to which Fyfe famously flew by helicopter after his Brownlow medal win. He recently finished building a house – not himself, although would you be surprised? – in North Coogee, around the corner from Fremantle’s new training base in Cockburn.

    Although, it is worth remembering this: Fyfe isn’t a businessman, he’s a business, man. He has co-starred in an international Adidas commercial with soccer player Gareth Bale; he has an incorporated brand (ominously or innocuously, depending on your perspective, titled Saint Street); he has 127,000 followers on Instagram, and just 49 posts; coach Lyon revealed Fyfe had enrolled in an MBA during his injury-ruined 2016 season.

    Fyfe has been consistent in all discussion regarding his future – consistently neutral. That’s fine for now, and is to be expected given players currently only earn one big chance to exercise free agent rights in their career. But as the season progresses, and October draws closer, Fremantle would be hoping for the dial to turn in their direction – doubly so if the AFL and AFL Players’ Association come to an agreement on a new CBA in the coming weeks.

    Fyfe-Fremantle-AFL

    AAP Image/Julian Smith

    Mark my words, again…
    As it stands, I am utterly convinced Nat Fyfe will remain a Fremantle Docker. Getting more specific, I believe he will sign a two-year contract extension with his current club, which would take him to ten years of service and earn him unrestricted free agent status.

    That is the most logical move. Fyfe is able to extract the salary of a top-five player for two years, play ‘wait and see’ at Fremantle, and make a decision on the final five or six years of his career with the knowledge – and narrative – that he’s given his draft team every chance to sort itself out.

    Right now, it seems like a waste of time to parse out the suitors. St Kilda will come knocking, so will North Melbourne and their endless salary cap space. The Adelaide Crows loom as a seamless fit, both on the field and in their broader demographics, if they can fit him into their salary cap. They have the playing assets to make a trade work, too. Every team in the competition will kick the tyres. It won’t matter. Fyfe will remain a Docker for now.

    Fremantle’s short-term win streak might be overstating their current potential. But with Fyfe’s free agency writ large over everything the Dockers do in 2017, the only runs on the board that matter are those Fyfe chalks up himself. Many of the particulars point to Fyfe remaining at Fremantle, at least in the short term, but they may not matter.

    The early signs of progress on a build centred on their superstar might be the best sales job Fremantle could hope for. Nat Fyfe’s free agency is simpler than you think, and it gets simpler with every positive piece of news at the Dockers.

    Ryan Buckland
    Ryan Buckland

    As an economist, Ryan seeks to fix the world's economic troubles one graph at a time. As a sports fan, he's always looking one or two layers beneath the surface to search for meaning, on and off the field. You can follow Ryan here.

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    The Crowd Says (71)

    • May 17th 2017 @ 5:20am
      SmithHatesMaxwell said | May 17th 2017 @ 5:20am | ! Report

      Freo were 3rd for disposal efficiency in 2015.

      People like to dismiss that stat when it suits them.

      But it would suggest the players skills were never as bad as people made out. It was always the scrappy, old-fashioned 2005 game plan that made the players look relatively poorly skilled.

      • Roar Guru

        May 17th 2017 @ 8:43am
        AdelaideDocker said | May 17th 2017 @ 8:43am | ! Report

        Huh, a compliment wrapped in an insult … nice.

        • May 17th 2017 @ 1:49pm
          SmithHatesMaxwell said | May 17th 2017 @ 1:49pm | ! Report

          Similar to Collingwood. Not a badly skilled team, just a game plan that leaves them booting a hail mary into the forward line to outnumbered forwards. Similar to the Dockers under Lyon.

      • May 17th 2017 @ 8:43am
        Don Freo said | May 17th 2017 @ 8:43am | ! Report

        2005? So, suddenly it’s not Ross’ plan anymore?

        There is no pertinent point in that comment, anon.

        • Roar Guru

          May 17th 2017 @ 12:25pm
          JamesH said | May 17th 2017 @ 12:25pm | ! Report

          In 2005 it was Roos’ Sydney gameplan, and Lyon (Roos’ deputy at the time) clearly continued with his own version of the same thing at St Kilda and Freo.

          I will concede that Lyon is on track to prove he’s not a one-tactic wonder. I wasn’t convinced he had it in him to transition to a modern game plan but credit where credit is due.

      • Columnist

        May 17th 2017 @ 8:47am
        Ryan Buckland said | May 17th 2017 @ 8:47am | ! Report

        Disposal efficiency is not a measure of how well a team takes care of the ball. An efficient disposal is a kick that travels >30m and is kicked either to a contest or open space. What I’ve done is look at turnovers only, and adjusted for volume of disposals. I don’t have numbers prior to this year, but it is worth noting turnovers don’t correlate very well to disposal efficiency.

        • May 17th 2017 @ 1:37pm
          SmithHatesMaxwell said | May 17th 2017 @ 1:37pm | ! Report

          Like I said, people will dismiss the stat when it suits them. Hawthorn were always number one team for disposal efficiency in their strong years. I don’t think anyone will argue with that.

          Anyway, the team that played round 1 and 2 had bad skills. 6 days later against the Bulldogs they had good skills. The only change was the dropping of serial underperformers and coach’s picks Suban, Sutcliffe, Dawson and Pearce. They were replaced with rookies and guys with virtually no experience.

          So in the space of 6 days Freo played some younger players, started running into space, trying to move the ball through the corridor, and all of a sudden they look like a team with good skills.

          Would suggest the players had the skills all along.

          Also, the excuse for Lyon last year is that it takes time to implement a new game plan (even though Pyke, Longmire were able to implement new game plans over the off season). Turns out you can successfully implement a new game plan in the space of 6 days.

          • May 17th 2017 @ 3:04pm
            Don Freo said | May 17th 2017 @ 3:04pm | ! Report

            Suban, Sutcliffe, Dawson and Pearce were replaced by Fyfe, Sandilands, Johnson, Hill, McCarthy, Kersten, Hambling…not by kids.

            It was the injured Ballantyne that was replaced by Grey. Taberner, one of your under performers, has been well coached and is doing well. Balic came in as soon as he was fit to play.

            Every observation you have made about Freo has demonstrated an absolute paucity of knowledge about its players and you are wide of the mark yet again.

    • Roar Guru

      May 17th 2017 @ 7:37am
      AdelaideDocker said | May 17th 2017 @ 7:37am | ! Report

      Phenomenal article. Really good quality analysis Ryan, and a view that I’m really hoping eventuates.

      I’d comment more than that, but my brain isn’t awake yet and I’m barely out of bed! How I just comprehended those thousands of words I dunno, but it was about Freo so naturally I had to try!

    • May 17th 2017 @ 8:26am
      Matt said | May 17th 2017 @ 8:26am | ! Report

      Soccer player Christian Bale? Isn’t Christian Bale an actor?

      Or has Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale merged into one super-galactico?

    • May 17th 2017 @ 8:48am
      Don Freo said | May 17th 2017 @ 8:48am | ! Report

      Ross’ 4/5 year plan was only ever a nedia leg pull.

      With the returned injured stars, experience into young guns who had to fly solo last year and some good trades, this squad is the best squad Freo has ever had…better than the 2015 minor premiers (a better spread of talent).

      A potential premiership has Freo in prime position if that was Nat’s primary criterion.

      • May 17th 2017 @ 9:38am
        Macca said | May 17th 2017 @ 9:38am | ! Report

        This squad is so good it has just fallen over the line against mid ladder Powerhouses like North, Richmond and Melbourne.

        I was very positive about the dockers after the trade period last year but the way they are going at the moment at best they look like making up the numbers in the bottom of the 8. If they don’t beat the blues this weekend (and recent history and Freo’s scoring capacity make that far from guaranteed) their season will be pretty much over.

        • May 17th 2017 @ 10:03am
          Peter Mckinnon said | May 17th 2017 @ 10:03am | ! Report

          Macca…Tongue in cheek…Extrapolating from your comments Adelaide are no good been thrashed by Melbourne and Kangas…eagles no good smashed by hawks and beaten by tigers dogs are rubbish well beaten by Freo… Giants… etc ???

          • May 17th 2017 @ 10:10am
            Macca said | May 17th 2017 @ 10:10am | ! Report

            Peter – there is a difference between “no good” and not being “the best squad freo has ever had”.

            That said, I am not convinced about the Eagles or the Dogs and the performances of Adelaide and the Giants in recent weeks has me re-thinking their premiership favouritism,

            • May 17th 2017 @ 2:22pm
              Balthazar said | May 17th 2017 @ 2:22pm | ! Report

              Actually I don’t think Don is that wrong here subject to a couple of very big IFs:
              IF Freo can ever get Bennell on the park
              IF Alex Pearce can recover from his leg problems
              I have very high hopes for Harley Balic, Ethan Hughes and Griffin Logue, especially the first of them. They haven’t scratched the surface of their abilities yet.

      • May 18th 2017 @ 12:50am
        Paul Thompson said | May 18th 2017 @ 12:50am | ! Report

        Balic, Langdon and Tucker will all ask for trades to Victorian clubs at end of this season

        • May 18th 2017 @ 1:14am
          dontknowmuchaboutfootball said | May 18th 2017 @ 1:14am | ! Report

          It’s just speculation, but I’m wondering whether Balic’s personal leave is homesickness related.

          Langdon is more or less in the 22 now, so he might be inclined to stay.

          • Roar Guru

            May 18th 2017 @ 9:38am
            AdelaideDocker said | May 18th 2017 @ 9:38am | ! Report

            Eh, I would hope Balic isn’t homesick. I couldn’t imagine he would be, given how happy he’s looked to be getting games and all, but I wouldn’t feel incline to begrudge him if he was. No idea what’s happening in his head, and I just hope he can sort out whatever it is.

        • May 18th 2017 @ 8:35am
          Don Freo said | May 18th 2017 @ 8:35am | ! Report

          That will be lucrative for Freo. 3 first round picks coming back.

    • May 17th 2017 @ 8:50am
      rusty said | May 17th 2017 @ 8:50am | ! Report

      I think Fyfe will stay, but I am just guessing like everyone else. The other big signing was Lachie Neale during our disastrous 2016. Fremantle have a very good record of retaining players during the Lyon era.

    • May 17th 2017 @ 8:58am
      Bob said | May 17th 2017 @ 8:58am | ! Report

      I think Lyons was actually the biggest impediment to Fyfe resigning (being that his game style was not conducive to any player enjoying their footy). But since Lyon threw in the towel after round 2 and basically stopped coaching and just let the players play, there is more enjoyment in the players and Fyfe may be inclined to stay provided they can keep Lyons from reasserting his insanely dull and soul-destroying brand of footy on the club.

      • May 17th 2017 @ 10:06am
        GoSwans said | May 17th 2017 @ 10:06am | ! Report

        Does Lyon only have one brand?

        • May 17th 2017 @ 10:26am
          Bob said | May 17th 2017 @ 10:26am | ! Report

          History would indicate that to be the case

          • Roar Guru

            May 17th 2017 @ 2:31pm
            Dalgety Carrington said | May 17th 2017 @ 2:31pm | ! Report

            Other than, according to you, recent history, which would indicate (in your pov above) a more laissez faire brand?

        • May 17th 2017 @ 10:48am
          I ate pies said | May 17th 2017 @ 10:48am | ! Report

          Lyon borrowed his brand from Paul Roos. It’s Roos’ brand.

      • May 17th 2017 @ 1:45pm
        SmithHatesMaxwell said | May 17th 2017 @ 1:45pm | ! Report

        Lyon had to be dragged kicking and screaming to change his game plan and drop his pet players (Suban, Sutcliffe, Pearce, Dawson). He’s already found a way to shoehorn Sutcliffe and Pearce back in the side, despite the side proving they are a better unit with young rookies than veteran serial underperformers.

        Can’t help himself. Over the coming months, we’ll see him coach the attacking instincts out of his players (we saw it in the 4th quarter on Sunday), he’ll punish his young players with demotion despite it being a rebuilding year and replace them with his trusted role players. Can’t help it.

        It’s funny. The Dockers best win in years (against Western) came as a result of Lyon dropping his pet players, telling his players to ignore the game plan and instead just run, run, run, be direct, go through the corridor, etc.

        Seems to be he’s the impediment.

        • May 17th 2017 @ 2:14pm
          Balthazar said | May 17th 2017 @ 2:14pm | ! Report

          Yeah right

          Pearce and Sutcliffe came in to fill holes due to Hill’s injury and Balic’s illness

          And I think they will be straight back out again

          • May 17th 2017 @ 2:28pm
            SmithHatesMaxwell said | May 17th 2017 @ 2:28pm | ! Report

            Shuffle the team around and bring in two young players not two players who are serial underperformers and won’t be a part of your future premiership.

            It’s a rebuild remember. Danyle Pearce won’t be around for the next premiership.

            • May 17th 2017 @ 5:45pm
              Axle and the Guru said | May 17th 2017 @ 5:45pm | ! Report

              Next??? Where’s the first?

          • May 17th 2017 @ 3:05pm
            dontknowmuchaboutfootball said | May 17th 2017 @ 3:05pm | ! Report

            Maybe not. Basic wasn’t sighted at training, and Langdon trained away from the group with his knee strapped.

            Presuming Hill passes his test, he’s a definite in, but Ballantyne will probably spend a week at Peel, so one or the other of Pearce and Sutcliffe is a strong chance to hold his spot.

            • Roar Guru

              May 17th 2017 @ 3:32pm
              AdelaideDocker said | May 17th 2017 @ 3:32pm | ! Report

              Balic’s latest instagram picture was him with his dad in Mordiallic. So, I’m pretty sure he’s been in Melbourne that past few days or something, which is strange because I would’ve thought we’d have heard about it if he was.

              Or it’s just an old picture that he decided to post yesterday, I dunno.

              • Roar Rookie

                May 17th 2017 @ 5:37pm
                FreoFan said | May 17th 2017 @ 5:37pm | ! Report

                Well I just read that he is now on indefinite leave to deal with a ‘personal issue’. Hopefully he is back soon and everything is all good!

              • Roar Guru

                May 17th 2017 @ 5:51pm
                AdelaideDocker said | May 17th 2017 @ 5:51pm | ! Report

                Yeah, just saw that. Pity I won’t be able to see him next weekend when Freo comes back to Adelaide!

                I was getting a bit suspicious because both Ross + the club media seemingly neglected mentioning him earlier today.

                Hope he’s all good, and I’d want him to take as long as he needs.

        • Roar Guru

          May 17th 2017 @ 2:32pm
          Dalgety Carrington said | May 17th 2017 @ 2:32pm | ! Report

          Did you even watch the game on Sunday (properly), or are you just going by the scores?

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