The new Baby Bombers can bring Essendon back to the flag race

Josh Elliott Editor

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    Essendon’s controversial ‘Comeback Story’ ended in a finals appearance, if not a particularly pretty one. While progress may not be not linear, 2017 has been the start of a new, promising era for the club.

    AFL list management series
    18 – Brisbane Lions
    17 – Gold Coast Suns
    16 – Carlton Blues
    15 – North Melbourne Kangaroos
    14 – Fremantle Dockers
    13 – Collingwood Magpies
    12 – Hawthorn Hawks
    11 – St Kilda Saints
    10 – Western Bulldogs
    9 – Melbourne Demons
    7 – Port Adelaide Power
    6 – West Coast Eagles
    5 – Sydney Swans
    4 – GWS Giants
    3 – Geelong Cats

    2017 in short

    Essendon’s season came to an end in embarrassing fashion on Saturday, simply outclassed by the Sydney Swans, a team that is clearly on a completely different level to them at the moment.

    That’s a bit of a bummer for the Bombers because, with Richmond having broken their finals drought on Friday, it means Essendon have now gone the longest without a finals win of any club in the comp – bar Gold Coast, of course.

    However, it’d be foolish to summarise their season looking simply at how it ended, or assume that a poor performance in finals means their projected future isn’t bright.

    After all, the Tigers themselves were similarly torn apart in an elimination final only three years ago and are now in flag contention. Minor premiers Adelaide copped a finals beatdown from Sydney just last year. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.

    Essendon’s 2017 all up was a good one – it had some disappointing moments, but they performed better than most expected of them and gave fans plenty of occasions to celebrate.

    Darcy Parish Essendon Bombers AFL 2017

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    Coach

    John Worsfold took over as coach of the Bombers ahead of the 2016 season and did a remarkable job in trying circumstances, giving young players opportunity without putting too much stress on them, generally avoiding blowouts and netting a few wins along the way.

    He faced a difficult task bringing the banned players back into the fold in 2017, and while there were a few hiccups early on, it was managed well. The fact the Bombers played finals when few thought they could is a big thumbs up for him.

    Essendon have performed above expectations in both of the seasons where he has led them so far, and what more can you ask of a senior coach? He appears the right man to lead the club forward for the foreseeable future.

    Captain

    Due to the upheaval at the club, Essendon has had three different captains in three years. Dyson Heppell took over the role at the start of 2017, and looks set to continue on in it for the foreseeable future.

    Heppell’s own form wasn’t quite at the elite level it has been in the past, but in addition to shouldering new responsibility he was also returning from a year-long ban. The fact he took the club back to finals alone is a big tick for him.

    Looking towards the future, Joe Daniher and Zach Merrett both look like potential future Bomber captains, or perhaps in time Andrew McGrath.

    (AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy)

    List management

    The Bombers were a particularly interesting proposition this year because they had to combine the return of an experienced group of veterans with the emergence of some talented youth, as well as finding room on their list for former top-up players Matt Dea and James Kelly.

    Part of that experienced group has already confirmed they are moving on this year, and probably more still will. It’s a group that includes players like Kelly (33), Jobe Watson, Brendon Goddard (both 32), Brent Stanton (31), Mark Baguley (30), Heath Hocking, Matthew Leuenberger (both 29), Cale Hooker, Ben Howlett, Craig Bird, David Myers and Tom Bellchambers (all 28).

    This group features a lot of players who have been a key part of the makeup of Essendon in the early half of this decade. Tellingly of that time period, it features many honest and likeable players, but little in the way of genuine star power.

    Watson, Kelly and Stanton are all retiring this year, and one would expect Hocking and Howlett and possibly some others will go too.

    That’s a good thing – there’s plenty of emerging youth on the Bombers’ list, which we’ll talk about soon, and they need to get opportunities that they won’t get if the veterans hang around too much longer.

    Essendon’s middle tier at the moment is pretty thin. David Zaharakis, Michael Hurley (both 27), Travis Colyer, Patrick Ambrose (both 26) and Dyson Heppell (25) are the only players in this group who regularly feature in the best 22.

    David Zaharakis Essendon Bombers AFL 2017

    (AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy)

    The transition to this group of players as the core of the team is underway, but much as in 2016, young players will be required to stand up and shoulder some more of the responsibility than would be normal. That can be good for their development so long as it doesn’t overload them.

    It is the new generation of Bomber, however, that fans should be getting excited about. Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti (24), Joe Daniher (23), Orazio Fantasia, Zach Merrett, Conor McKenna, Jayden Laverde (all 21), Kyle Langford, Darcy Parish, Aaron Francis (all 20), Andrew McGrath, Josh Begley (both 19) and Jordan Ridley (18) all have talent to write home about.

    A lot of these players had key roles in Essendon’s return to finals this year, invaluable experience that will benefit them more and more as they mature.

    The thing I particularly like about this group is that there’s plenty of players who know how to kick goals. When they come into their prime, the Bombers will have one of the most dangerous forward lines in the game.

    The real question for the Bombers, with a list like this, is when they should be targeting a flag – the ideal scenario would be to see the bulk of the talent mature while the likes of Hooker, Hurley and Zaharakis are all still quality contributors, so they’re probably aiming for around 2020.

    However, even if their youth doesn’t mature fast enough for that to happen, they can expect to have some success later on if they continue to invest in the draft and make wise trading and free agency decisions.

    Orazio Fantasia Essendon Bombers AFL 2017

    (Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)

    Essendon players by age
    James Kelly – 33yr 8mth
    Jobe Watson – 32yr 7mth
    Brendon Goddard – 32yr 3mth
    Brent Stanton – 31yr 4mth
    Mark Baguley – 30yr 3mth
    Heath Hocking – 29yr 8mth
    Matthew Leuenberger – 29yr 3mth
    Cale Hooker – 28yr 10mth
    Ben Howlett – 28yr 10mth
    Craig Bird – 28yr 7mth
    David Myers – 28yr 2mth
    Tom Bellchambers – 28yr 2mth
    David Zaharakis – 27yr 6mth
    Michael Hurley – 27yr 3mth
    Mitch Brown – 27yr
    Shaun McKernan (R) – 27yr
    Travis Colyer – 26yr
    Patrick Ambrose – 26yr
    Matthew Dea – 25yr 10mth
    Dyson Heppell – 25yr 3mth
    Ben McNiece (R) – 25yr 1mth
    Josh Green – 25yr
    Jackson Merrett – 24yr 6mth
    Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti – 24yr 4mth
    Michael Hartley – 24yr 3mth
    Joe Daniher – 23yr 6mth
    James Stewart – 23yr 6mth
    Martin Gleeson – 23yr
    Orazio Fantasia – 21yr 11mth
    Zach Merrett – 21yr 11mth
    Alex Morgan – 21yr 7mth
    Jake Long (R) – 21yr 7mth
    Conor McKenna – 21yr 5mth
    Jayden Laverde – 21yr 4mth
    Kyle Langford – 20yr 9mth
    Yestin Eades (R) – 20yr 6mth
    Darcy Parish – 20yr 1mth
    Aaron Francis – 20yr
    Mason Redman – 20yr
    Kobe Mutch – 19yr 5mth
    Andrew McGrath – 19yr 3mth
    Josh Begley – 19yr 2mth
    Dylan Clarke – 19yr
    Sam Draper (R) – 18yr 11mth
    Jordan Ridley – 18yr 10mth

    Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti AFL Essendon Bombers 2017

    (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

    Essendon may have a fight on their hands if they want to retain Conor McKenna – he is out of contract and has reportedly fielded interest from a few other clubs. He’s got some real talent and signing him up should be their top priority.

    In terms of the 2018 contract group, Jayden Laverde and Kyle Langford are the two key ones to keep an eye on. They’ve not yet cemented themselves in the side and may look at other options if they fail to do so next year – the Saints reportedly had some interest in Laverde last year. With some veterans moving on, they should get that opportunity.

    No.1 draft pick and Rising Star winner Andy McGrath, as well as later picks Josh Begley and Jordan Ridley, will also be players that the Bombers look to extend sooner rather than later.

    Essendon players by contract status
    2022
    Michael Hurley

    2021
    Cale Hooker
    Zach Merrett
    David Zaharakis

    2020
    Joe Daniher
    Dyson Heppell

    2019
    Patrick Ambrose
    Travis Colyer
    Orazio Fantasia
    Aaron Francis
    Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti
    David Myers
    Darcy Parish
    Mason Redman

    2018
    Josh Begley
    Tom Bellchambers
    Mitch Brown
    Dylan Clarke
    Matthew Dea
    Martin Gleeson
    Brendon Goddard
    Michael Hartley
    Kyle Langford
    Jayden Laverde
    Matthew Leuenberger
    Andrew McGrath
    Kobe Mutch
    Jordan Ridley

    Out of contract
    Mark Baguley
    Sam Draper (R)
    Yestin Eades (R)
    Josh Green
    Heath Hocking
    Ben Howlett
    James Kelly
    Jake Long (R)
    Conor McKenna
    Shaun McKernan (R)
    Ben McNiece (R)
    Jackson Merrett
    Alex Morgan
    Brent Stanton
    Jobe Watson

    Unconfirmed
    Craig Bird
    James Stewart

    Andrew McGrath Essendon Bombers AFL 2017

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    Delistings and retirements

    Jobe Watson, James Kelly and Brent Stanton have already confirmed their retirements, and you’d expect that more of Essendon’s older group will join them.

    Heath Hocking and Ben Howlett have struggled to get near the best 22 all year and likely won’t be offered new deals, and the same probably goes for Jackson Merrett.

    Mark Baguley should get another year, and Josh Green has shown enough to keep getting chances. Alex Morgan has raw speed but hasn’t debuted yet, the Bombers will likely give him a new deal with more time to develop.

    Free agency

    Heath Hocking (unrestricted)
    Ben Howlett (unrestricted)

    Carlton were interested in Howlett the last time he was out of contract, but that was under a different coach and different list manager. It’s unlikely either of these two will be in the AFL, at Essendon or elsewhere, in 2018.

    Although they haven’t been linked to anyone in particular, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for Essendon to target a free agent who can help bolster what is a fairly thin middle tier at the club.

    John Worsfold has said the club wants to add to its midfield this off-season, and former Brisbane captain Tom Rockliff could be a fine fit.

    He’s around the same age as Michael Hurley and David Zaharakis so would give some needed growth to that group, has some leadership experience, and obviously is one of the best ball-winners in the competition.

    If the Bombers believe they have the salary cap to fit an extra player in without breaking up their youth, they’ve got nothing to lose and plenty to gain by asking the question of him.

    AFL BRISBANE COLLINGWOOD

    (AAP Image/Joe Castro)

    Trade period

    In terms of players going out, there has been a little talk that out-of-contract Irishman Conor McKenna is looking at offers that have been made to him by other clubs, but it’s not clear who these might be just yet.

    The Bombers’ first priority should absolutely be to retain him – he’s been more potential than performance so far so they would only get maybe a second-round draft pick back as the absolute best result for a player who could become a genuine star of the competition.

    In terms of players who are coming in, they haven’t been strongly linked to anyone at this stage, but they’ve been at least part of the conversation about all of Josh Kelly, Jake Stringer and surprisingly, former Bomber Stewart Crameri.

    Kelly would be an ideal recruit – he fits perfectly into the youth core they have and would be another layer of elite classy talent in that group. However, they seem to have entered the race for his services quite late and makes it all seem a bit unlikely.

    Stringer may be a real possibility – details of his situation at the Bulldogs are only just emerging, so it’s hard to tell exactly what is going to happen there, but Essendon will surely be interested.

    Like Kelly, he’d fit into their youth group perfectly agewise, and there’s no doubting his talent, even if there is significant doubt around the other aspects of him.

    jake-stringer-western-bulldogs-afl-grand-final-2016

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    With Stewart Crameri reportedly looking to join a third AFL club, there’s been a little bit of talk that he could come home to what was his original club. It has changed pretty significantly since he was last there.

    I can’t say that seems like a wise decision for the Bombers though. He hasn’t offered anything at AFL level in a little while – admittedly due largely to bad luck – but at 29 he’s unlikely to feature in their next flag and would only take the spot of a younger player.

    Draft

    First three rounds: 11, 29, 47.

    Although John Worsfold has highlighted the midfield as an area where he wants to add depth, the one notable absence in Essendon’s youth group is genuine A-grade key position talent beyond Joe Daniher, so I would be looking here in the draft.

    Western Australian key defender Aaron Naughton could be a perfect pick as someone to eventually take the reigns from Michael Hurley in the backline.

    Outlook

    The Bombers have made some significant investments at the draft in the last few years and have found some real talents. As a result, they have an emerging group of young players that, if they continue to develop, could take the club far.

    What’s less certain is just how much their middle tier can do for them, and the timeline of their eventual return to premiership contention depends a bit on this.

    They may well need to add another quality player or two to their middle tier in order to experience genuine success while this group is still at the club. Michael Hibberd would’ve been ideal to retain for this purpose, but ah well, too late.

    Instead, free agency is the ideal way to target talent in this demographic. Tom Rockliff is worth taking a run at this year, but there is going to be plenty of talent on the market next year as well.

    If the Bombers land a big name or two in this group, then they could rise swiftly up the table and might well be challenging for their next flag by the turn of the decade.

    However, they may have to be a bit more patient than that, and wait until the players who are currently the kids to become the genuine core of the team. That might make flag contention in the early-to-mid-2020s a more realistic goal.

    Josh Begley Essendon Bombers AFL 2017

    (Photo by Jason O’Brien/AFL Media/Getty Images)

    Their immediate prospects will depend a bit on how much the departure of some veterans affects them, and how they ultimately responded to copping a finals shellacking.

    There’s every chance that it takes them some time to properly transition, and they fall short of finals in 2018.

    However, there are a few kids who certainly will be chomping at the bit for opportunities, and the veterans who are leaving didn’t necessarily play key roles in the team.

    I wouldn’t be surprised at all if handing the reigns to the next generation accelerates the club’s progress, rather than stalling it.

    Either way, Dons fans should be excited. The club appears to be in the best position that it has since the departure of Kevin Sheedy, and there’ll be much to enjoy in the years to come.

    Josh Elliott
    Josh Elliott

    Josh Elliott may be The Roar's Weekend Editor, but at heart he's just a rusted-on North Melbourne tragic with a penchant for pun headlines - and also abnormal alliteration, assuredly; assuming achievability. He once finished third in a hot chilli pie eating contest. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshElliott_29 and listen to him on The Roar's AFL Podcast.

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