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Adelaide Crows: 2016 AFL season preview

Rory Sloane is on fire. (AAP Image/David Mariuz)
Roar Guru
2nd February, 2016
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I am putting forward my predictions for each AFL side, starting with the Adelaide Crows.

My wins projection for the side is based on the fixture and my own mathematical modeling, and the structure of the team is based on the structure used by the Coaches All Australian Team for 2015 (which I talked about in a previous post).

Best midfielder – Scott Thompson
With Patrick Dangerfield gone the number one midfield duty returns to Scott Thompson.

As a tackler and clearance player his only peer on this side is Rory Sloane. Modeling suggests that this will be Thompson’s last season as a truly effective midfielder. He will drop off in a number of categories even in 2016 but can still be relied on for 25-plus handball heavy, inside possessions and five or so tackles a game.

Many Crows fans will bristle at the notion that Rory Sloane is not at the top of my list. My data suggests simply that Thompson is still likely, even at 33 years old, to do more of the important things that midfielders do than Sloane in 2016. This is a problem for the Crows, not because Thompson can’t still mix it with the best, but natural attrition suggests that 33-year-old inside midfielders get injured and miss games.

While there are a few players (Sloane definitely, Matt Crouch and maybe Brad Crouch) coming up to replace Thompson, they are at least one more season away from taking the mantle of most important inside midfielder at this club.

Best defender – Matthew Jaensch
In measuring the best defender, I’m including general defenders on the same list as key defenders. In part, this is because for most teams the best ‘key’ defender is obvious and one of only two or three on the list at all.

Matthew Jaensch’s career trajectory in each of the most important statistical categories projects him as top five per cent of the league by 2020. He is, however, coming off an injury and this therefore gives a little less certainty as to what can be expected in terms of his future output. Indeed, 2014 is the only season in which he has played every game.

Nevertheless, his future arc suggests we can expect above-average output in almost every category. If Jaensch can earn between 19-22 kick-centric possessions coming out of the backline, and stay injury-free, his future is bright.

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Best forward – Tom Lynch
On paper, for the sake of structuring the team, I have Lynch as a second key forward, with Josh Jenkins on the bench as the second ruck.

In practice, Jenkins will play the second key forward predominantly, and Lynch will play either a high half forward or the ‘third tall’ role. This role is perhaps underrated and speaks to the traditional prevailing perspective of many AFL commentators – that is, we are prone to focus heavily on power forwards.

Certainly once upon a time the biggest marking forward was the most dangerous offensive weapon, and teams lived or died by their eventual goal tally. This is no longer the case.

It is also not the case that ‘third tall’ simply means ‘guy who would be the key forward if he was better’. Statistically, the two players are somewhat similar, although Lynch collects the ball at a higher rate. You may argue this is a function of how far up the ground he plays by comparison to Taylor Walker. My argument would be if Walker is capable of getting more of the ball simply by playing further away from goal, then why isn’t he doing that in the first place?

On the other hand, if Walker cannot or should not play further from goal given he’s 15 kilograms heavier and stronger than Lynch, maybe his role is suited to the goal square – then he relies on Lynch to bridge the ball between the midfield and the forward line.

In terms of projections for 2016, Lynch is only marginally ahead of Walker. He essentially lays tackles at a slightly more frequent rate and gets more of the ball. Nevertheless, he is expected to collect between 18 and 20 possessions as a medium-sized forward, lay a couple of tackles, and mark the ball only slightly less frequently than Walker.

This makes him the most valuable player overall in the Crows forward line for 2016.

Biggest strength: Rotation of general defender/midfielders
The Crows’ strongest area is their defensive end. Owing partly to their youth and partly to the high standard they have set early in their career, all the players in their best back six project as improving significantly or holding consistently through the next five years.

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Jaensch, as mentioned, rates as potentially one the best running defenders in the league by 2020, and Jake Lever also projects as in the 90th percentile for all defenders on the basis of his 12 games played in 2015.

Kyle Cheney is an interesting piece in this structure also, I was surprised to find that he is only 26. He is often referred to as a ‘veteran presence’, and having played at three clubs the perception is that he is at the end of his career, when in reality he is coming into his prime. He can also play on bigger forwards if needed and so potentially gives flexibility to Daniel Talia and Lever if an opponent is beating them.

Additionally, Rory Laird and Paul Seedsman, although nominally listed as midfielders, tend to play in the back half of the ground, and so the depth of rotation for both general defender midfielders and key position backs is solid.

Biggest weakness: Ruck depth
It is important to note that the weakness here is ‘depth’ not the ruck itself. Sam Jacobs is perfect for this team as a tap ruckman who plays almost the entire game around the ground in the ruck.

However, in the event of injury to Jacobs, Jenkins becomes the first ruck or maybe Luke Lowden or Reily O’Brien come up from the SANFL. If this happens those players may play out of their skin and fill the gap, but that should not be expected.

The Crows are already relying heavily on an ageing Scott Thompson, Rory Sloane and Matt Crouch to give them ascendancy at stoppages. This in turn relies heavily on Jacobs’ ability to win first possession in the ruck. Without this, the Crows could start to give a lot back to the opposition from stoppage situations.

Unlike some teams in the league, the Crows do not have a balanced ruck rotation. Normally this doesn’t matter, because Jacobs is so good at doing it by himself, so fingers crossed injury does not befall his season.

Best 22 average output
Adelaide – 14.12.96, opponent 11.13.79

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An average output of 96 versus 79 would be an outstanding return, however this is only in the event of the best 22 playing every week for 22 weeks.

The best 22 this team can field projects overall as among the weakest four or five ‘best 22′ teams in the league. In this sense then, they are relying on other teams playing well below standard to pinch extra wins.

Moreover, their fixture sees them play strong teams like West Coast, Fremantle, Port Adelaide, North Melbourne and Geelong twice – and at least three of those teams will be in the top eight, which makes for a tricky draw.

Given their vulnerability to injury in the ruck and the relative youth of their list, there are few games you could pencil in as straightforward for Adelaide.

I am predicting a bottom-six finish, ranging from as few as five wins and as many as eight.

Best 22
Backs: Kyle Cheney, Daniel Talia, Matthew Jaensch
Half backs: Brodie Smith, Jake Lever, Ricky Henderson
Centre: Mitchell Grigg, Matt Crouch, Cam Ellis-Yolmen
Half Forwards: Richard Douglas, Tom Lynch, Eddie Betts
Forwards: David Mackay, Taylor Walker, Jake Kelly
Followers: Sam Jacobs, Scott Thompson, Rory Sloane
Interchange: Nathan van Berlo, Rory Laird, Paul Seedsman, Josh Jenkins