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

Ryan Buckland Columnist

By , 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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