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The best young player in the AFL is...

The Bont is unstoppable. (AAP Image/David Crosling)
Expert
1st March, 2016
61
4427 Reads

At this time of year, clubs love selling the future. If draft pick X comes on, we’ll be surging up the ladder in no time. For a lot of teams, that hope has already turned to reality.

The AFL’s stock of young talent is seriously good, and might be the best it has been in years.

Last year’s AFL Players’ Association 22Under22 team, which is exactly what it sounds like, would have given the best sides in the competition a run for their money.

That group includes none of Gold Coast’s blue chip midfielders, who missed part or all of the year due to injury. If the likes of Jaeger O’Meara and Jack Martin were included, would that team be a lock for the top eight? We’ll never know, but it is a fun question to consider.

Another question to pose that can’t really be answered is could this be the best group of young, emerging talent that the AFL has seen in, well, however long you’d like to consider? The gut says yes, but the head says don’t make such outlandish claims unless you’ve got evidence, Buckland.

Screw the head, this column is all about gut. It’s time for the first Totally Subjective Power Ranking for season 2016. Like the last effort, when a totally subjective ‘winner’ of the 2015 AFL year was declared, there are a few rules.

Rule number one is that to be considered a young player in this conversation, a player has to be 23 or younger in this football year. Rule number two is that first year players are out – we don’t know enough about them to be, you know, fully subjective.

Rule number three is that only the top of the young talent tree can be considered – sorry, Carlton fans, 2016 Brownlow medallist Sam Kerridge doesn’t make the cut.

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What are we assessing them all on? Let’s use some combination of their performance to date, flare, dare, excitement, and potential to rip wormholes in the league’s space-time continuum this season and beyond.

Finally, there will be tiers. The exemplar of this group of players is really Nat Fyfe, who began swallowing planets in his age 23 season; the top tier is named in his honour.

There are a couple of players that miss out because of rule number one.

Tom Liberatore (24 this season) misses the cut-off but is going to be a very useful addition for the Western Bulldogs this season. Heading into 2015, when everyone was down on the Dogs after they blew up their entire leadership team, Liberatore was held up as their lone ‘good’ player. His ACL injury was meant to be the death knell for his team’s season. We all know what happened next.

Tom Lynch from the Gold Coast Suns misses qualification by a single day, turning 24 on the last football day of the year. He is the key forward of the future: tall, agile for his size, and excellent overhead. Fellow Sun Dion Prestia also turns 24 late in the football year, and would have been in a contention.

Joe Daniher Essendon Bombers 2013 AFL

The future is now tier
Ben Brown
Joe Daniher
Tom Boyd

These three guys all stand close to two metres tall, but are expected to develop into key forwards in the coming years. In the past, they would most certainly be considered for the ruck, and have pinch hit in their careers to date.

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They are a window into what a stock standard key forward is likely to look like in the years ahead. Once Tom Boyd, Ben Brown and Joe Daniher hit the prime of their careers, they are likely to be carrying close to 110 kegs with them wherever they go, and when their vertical leap and reach is taken into account, will become close to unstoppable in one-on-one contests.

Brown is arguably slightly ahead of the development curve than Daniher at this point in time, but that’s mostly because Daniher has been the number one, two and three option at Essendon since his debut.

Brown has had a much more sheltered transition into the game, plying his trade as a third tall in a forward line that includes the likes of Drew Petrie, Jarrad Waite and Lindsay Thomas. Daniher has had a rotating cast of guys more suited to the defensive end of the ground.

Boyd is the interesting one. He was somewhat superfluous to requirements last season, acting as the most expensive decoy in AFL history as the Dogs went super small inside the forward 50. Still, he kicked a goal a game, which for a second-year key forward is around about par for the course.

No one knows what happens to the Dogs this year, given their rise was so shocking and style of play so fluid and exciting. In the same way that Liberatore’s insertion into this line-up looms as a risk, increased use of Boyd as a forward option looms.

As Cam Rose’s favourite recording artist often muses, the haters are going to hate, and until Boyd kicks 100 goals in a year they’ll keep hating.

History says it’s the fourth and fifth years that key forwards begin to hit their straps. Daniher is entering his fourth year, while Brown and Boyd are in their third. There’s still some way to go for these three, but watch out once they reach their peak.

The token defender tier
Jack Hombsch
Rory Laird

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For one reason or another, key defenders are the hardest position to fill on the ground. There are practically none that rate in the top tier in the league at a young age – the closest we have right now is probably Daniel Talia, who was so good so early that he won the 2012 Rising Star award over a bunch of more highly touted midfield types.

Port Adelaide – the running, gunning, are-we-sure-they’re-good Port Adelaide – have an emerging dynamo down back: Jack Hombsch.

Something of a late bloomer, Hombsch was taken by Greater Western Sydney as an underage selection in 2010, but played just nine games for the Giants in 2012 before being traded to the Power. He suited up in six games in the Power’s 2013 surge, and has played every game since.

The Power have played a three tall defensive line-up in the past, with Hombsch required to play both tall and small. When Alipate Carlile went down with injury at the back end of last year, Hombsch took on a greater role as the Power reeled off seven wins with a points against of 83 despite playing against some of the better attacking sides in the league.

It’s a testament to his athleticism that he’s been able to hold his place in a team that loves nothing more than to rebound hard from the back half. He’ll be huge for the Power this year, and the next, and the one after that.

Meanwhile, Rory Laird burst onto the scene last season, making the All-Australian squad in the position that Nick Smith created in 2014: lockdown small defender.

Like Hombsch, it is rare for a defensive oriented player to emerge so early in a career. As the Crows look to change their identity in 2016, he’ll be a critical piece to their defensive line-up – as Adelaide look to improve their rebound game, his ability to play one-on-one becomes oh so crucial.

Over time, Laird could become an incredibly effective rebound player, forcing his opponent to play a defensive role on him while also being blanketed in one-on-one contests. Defenders don’t emerge this early in their careers normally, and so Laird’s performance in 2015 suggests he could be an elite player in the years ahead.

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The boy among men tier
Brodie Grundy

The average age of the 20 players that earned more than 300 hit-outs last season was 26 and a half. Brodie Grundy, Collingwood’s emerging leviathan ruckman, was in his 21-year-old season last year. That counts for something, even if he may not be a dominant winner of contests that his elder full-time brethren can claim to be. Worth noting: of those 20 players to execute 300 hit-outs, Grundy was second behind Mark Blicavs in disposals per game.

Isaac Heeney Sydney Swans 2015 AFL

The 2020 All-Australian team tier
Jordan De Goey
Patrick Cripps
Isaac Heeney
Jack Billings

This group of four players are a decent stab-in-the-dark as to what the 2020 All-Australian side’s midfield might look like. All are still in the embryonic stages of their career, having played a season or less (or just slightly more in the case of Billings) by way of games. However, those games they have played have shown they are potential superstars of the competition.

More critically, all represent the next generation at their club: Heeney is the middle child of Sydney’s Tom Mitchell-Heeney-Callum Mills midfield core; Patrick Cripps is the only player still playing for Carlton as far as I’m aware, Jack Billings is the leader of a veritable barrel of young midfielders at St Kilda; and Jordan De Goey is the final piece of Collingwood’s budding midfield dynasty.

These players should continue to break out in 2016, and might be ready to move into a tier that represents more than potential as early as next season.

The please, stop getting injured, you’re hurting my feelings tier
Brad Crouch
Jaeger O’Meara
Jack Martin

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Adelaide lost their best player in Patrick Dangerfield, but as we discussed a couple of weeks ago, there is real cause for optimism at the Crows. In my pre-season haze I neglected to mention Adelaide might already have a Dangerfield replacement in their inside midfield ready to go: Brad Crouch.

The problem is, we simply don’t know, because Crouch has been out injured effectively since bursting on to the scene as runner-up in the 2013 Rising Star despite playing just 14 games. He played 11 games in his sophomore season, and missed the entirety of 2015 with foot issues. Entering his 22-year-old season, Crouch should expect to play 22 games and be a critical variable in Adelaide’s search for a replacement to Dangerfield’s 135 clearances won in 2015.

Meanwhile, Jack Martin and Jaeger O’Meara spent most and all of last season respectively in the injury ward, cruelly keeping their talents to themselves for 2015. The two, plus the injured David Swallow, slightly-too-old-for-this-list Dion Prestia, and G.O.D. Gary Ablett Jr, form what could be the best midfield in the competition.

O’Meara showed why the Suns recruited him hard in his native West Australia as an underage signing in his debut year, winning the rising star and nearly sweeping the votes in the process. He was very nearly an instant entrant into the 20/1 club – players to average 20 disposals and a goal a game – as a 19-year-old, displaying a nose for the game generally reserved for eight-year veterans.

The kid is a natural, but has the physical gifts to make the most of his raw talent, not unlike the player that his captain became as he entered prime age.

His knee injury was, according to reports, the worst possible kind, and his 2016 won’t begin until partway through the season. Another Suns dynamo, Jack Martin, has had two injury-interrupted years in his two-year career, but fortunately by all reports is looking the goods heading into this season.

Martin’s rare outings have been mostly on the fringes of his team, with just over ten disposals per game at a ridiculous 81 per cent efficiency in 2015. He’s undersized to play in a modern midfield, suggesting he may play an Andrew Gaff-like role as an outside threat before eventually evolving into a more traditional wing player.

Regardless of what he becomes, just, please, don’t get injured again. Same goes for you, Jaeger. We don’t want the inaugural story of the Gold Coast Suns being centred on a ‘what if’.

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Jeremy Cameron overhead mark for GWS

The one man offence tier
Jeremy Cameron
Jake Stringer

In 2014, Jake Stringer kicked 1.4 goals per game on 2.2 scoring shots, winning 6.2 contested possessions per game and assisting on an extra 0.5 goals – not too shabby, but nothing to suggest he could be much more than an interesting third or fourth option forward of the ball for the Western Bulldogs.

Last season, he maintained his rate of ball winning (6.1 contested possessions per game), but became one of the league’s most damaging forward half players, booting 2.6 goals per game on four scoring shots, and upping his goal assist rate to 0.9 per game.

Some of this was scheme. The Dogs played a small forward attacking line-up last season, which was able to weave its way around lumbering defences, which are popular across the league. But a lot of it was Stringer, and his somewhat unique traits.

How many times was Stringer able to burn off his opponent with and without the ball-in-hand, and stream inside 50 to either set-up or boot an easy goal? Eleventy sounds right. At 190-plus and over 90 kilograms, Stringer should be playing on the inside – he can do that, but his pace and agility are such that he is more suited to the outside.

Like a lot of Dogs heading into this year, Stringer still needs to show that his 2015 wasn’t a flash in the pan. I suspect it wasn’t, but that keeps him out of consideration for the actual rankings. For now.

Jeremy Cameron, by contrast, has shown he can already mix it with the best forwards in the competition. Since the Giants entered the competition in 2012, Jeremy Cameron ranks sixth in goals per game (for those players who have played 20 or more games in those four years), despite playing those years at an expansion club and as a 19, 20, 21 and 22-year-old.

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Like Stringer, Cameron is something of a unique proposition given he is neither particularly tall (196 centimetres, about average for a tall forward) or large (93 kilograms, again around average for a key forward). He is excellent on the lead and one-on-one, and is great in both set piece and open play situations.

Cameron would have benefitted incredibly from the presence of Cam McCarthy as a flank this season, but alas. Still, the addition of Jonathon Patton – the two have rarely suited up together – should see his flexible game go to new heights.

The Joel Selwood tier
Ollie Wines
Lachie Neale
Elliot Yeo
Bradley Hill

Each of these four players have played in finals football very early in their careers, with Brad Hill already a triple premiership player after just four seasons of professional football. That, quite frankly, is obscene.

Hill himself looms as critical to Hawthorn’s next phase, given his accumulation of experience alongside the Hawks’ near-legendary midfield group.

His slight frame will never allow him to play meaningful time as the inside-outside threat that the likes of Luke Hodge and Jordan Lewis have been, but that likely won’t matter given the depth of inside abilities the Hawks are building. Hill has grown into one of the most prospective wingmen in the game, and one suspects he will need to break into the elite of the competition to become a four-time premiership player in just his fifth season.

It is almost remarkable to consider that he was considered the inferior Hill in the 2013 grand final.

Ollie Wines is a 30-year-old, and until I see a birth certificate I won’t be convinced otherwise. His stature is more bodybuilder than footy player – last season he was a handful of clearances away from joining the elite inside ball winners in the competition to average six clearances and six other contested possessions per game. Over the next few years, he has the potential to be… *gulp* … a Patrick Dangerfield clone.

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Wines may not have had the grand final success of a Brad Hill, but he’s already played in five finals (including two preliminary finals) in his 62-game career. That’s not a bad start for a guy taken as the top pick of a basket case of a club in 2012.

But he doesn’t have the largest finals strike rate of this group. Fremantle’s Lachie Neale may have been drafted into the perfect location for someone of his stature and abilities.

He joined the Dockers in 2011, when David Mundy was anonymous, Nat Fyfe hadn’t put the scaffold up, and Ross Lyon was just about to begin building the contested, inside monster that his team has become. Like Wines, Neale is an in-and-under monster but has shown glimpses of being more of a polished outside threat when the opportunity presents itself.

After locking down a spot in Fremantle’s midfield group towards the end of 2013, Neale has played in all seven of the Dockers’ finals, averaging nearly 30 touches in the four that he wasn’t the substitute. Remarkably, one of every ten of Neale’s games has been in September. He could become one of the game’s elite inside midfielders in the years ahead, and looms as a 12-year player in the mould of West Coast’s Matt Priddis.

Which brings us to Elliot Yeo, perhaps the most tenuous inclusion in the Joel Selwood tier. Yeo played his first two seasons at Brisbane, not doing a great deal, before being traded west in 2014. His 2014 season – a harbinger of things to come under coach Adam Simpson in retrospect – was ended by a hand injury. West Coast weren’t expected to do much in 2015, and the football world saw Yeo’s appearance as a fill-in defender as a sign of how bad West Coast’s defensive stocks had been hit.

Then it all worked, and Yeo looked like a younger, more defensively oriented (in role, that isn’t a knock on Fyfe in the slightest) Nat Fyfe. Mhm. Yeo personified what the Eagles became – a flexible, adaptable, somewhat position-less amorphous footballing beast. He might be the Draymond Green of the AFL’s Golden State Warriors.

Jesse Hogan Melbourne Demons

The Nat Fyfe tier
So we’re at the top. These are the five players that are going to hit the AFL like a wrecking ball made of dynamite in the years ahead, and in many cases already are the league’s next wave of super duper stars. They are also the only players that’ll have a number next to them.

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5. Jesse Hogan
Hogan was a deserved winner of last year’s Rising Star award, even if some people thought Cripps would actually win the award due to his Atlassian ability to pick up a club on his 19-year-old shoulders.

He won the award for reasons outlined here, and he will become a very wealthy young man for reasons outlined here.

What Hogan did at Melbourne last year was off the chart for a key forward in their first 20 games – therein lies the rub. It was his first 20 games, and so while he might be the AFL’s next most valuable property from a marketing perspective, I can’t put him above the other four guns listed here for that reason alone.

How important is he to Melbourne’s rise up the ladder? Important.

4. Adam Treloar
Treloar’s move to Collingwood in the off-season was one of football’s weird ‘will he, won’t he’ stories, insofar as it was very clear that this was all ‘will he’ and very little ‘won’t he’.

I mean, if you’re going to film a supporter video announcing you’ve signed while you’re still negotiating with your new club, and/or you’re going to go and have secret surgery, reportedly paid for by your new club while you are still contracted by your old club and your old club has no idea about the surgery, well, you’re making your position quite well known. Am I right?

Anyway, the Treloar deal is huge for Collingwood. He is a young Dangerfield, only if Dangerfield was a dead-eye with the ball in hand. Moving from an expansion club to the biggest club in the land will supercharge his status as one of the game’s absolute elite youngsters.

3. Dylan Shiel
This may be a controversial pick, but it hopefully won’t be. Shiel was destroying high-quality defences in the first half of last year, with a combination of power, speed and agility that doesn’t come along too often.

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With another pre-season under his belt and an improving group of players around him, Shiel could emerge as one of the premier midfielders in the game as soon as this year. Lower body injuries to players like Shiel have limited careers before – Chris Judd’s evolution from free-running cannonball to inside beast was caused in large part because he lost his first step after injuring his groin at West Coast in 2007.

But then we’re reminded that Shiel might be one of the most freakish athletes in the game right now.

His ability to both link up and deliver the ball makes him an instant tag candidate. As the Giants charge towards finals and a premiership tilt, one would expect Shiel to be one of, if not the club’s best player.

2. Chad Wingard
I love the Wingard. The AFL community as a whole loves the Chad.

Wingard has been one of the most consistent performers in Port Adelaide’s forward line in recent years, kicking 43, 43 and 53 goals (the second most at the club behind Jay Schulz) since Ken Hinkley took the reins and freed up the Power’s ball movement. He kicks them from everywhere, too, and while he might not be the best kick for goal that calls the Adelaide Oval home, he’s a very close second.

Wingard is a strange – let’s say unique – player, in that his stats suggest he is a prototypical small forward, and yet he is an incredibly strong one-on-one player when the ball comes in high. Ask Sean Dempster what he thinks of Wingard’s aerial prowess.

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Hinkley likes to leave his dynamic scorer closer to goal now compared to his first year in charge, leading to a reduction in Wingard’s counting statistics. That hasn’t diminished his impact, though, with the AFL’s official player ratings pegging Wingard as one of the 20 most effective players in the game.

Needless to say at just 23 years of age, and with an unblemished injury history, Wingard has room to grow.

Speaking of room to grow…

Marcus Bontempelli

1. Marcus Bontempelli
Would you believe this is the Bont’s 20-year-old season? That should scare the daylights out of everybody in the AFL, except those tied to the Western Bulldogs.

Bontempelli doesn’t really have a position in the league yet – and that is meant as the most glowing of compliments. He can do everything, and has the size and physical prowess to play anywhere. I reckon I’ve seen him play in defence for stints in the past.

He’s kicked three goals in a game, had ten clearances in a game, had ten tackles in a game four times, had ten contested possessions or more 12 times, had five hit-outs twice, and had a game where he tallied 20 uncontested possessions. His 37 games have, according to Champion Data, been the most productive first 37 games in the history of its fancy score impact metrics.

The Bont could become one of the best players that the game has ever seen, such are his extraordinary skills and abilities. Even if he doesn’t make it to that absolute peak, there is little doubt that he will be a fantastic, decade-plus player. Remember, the dude is 20 god damn years old. They don’t even let kids his age drink in many parts of the world.

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Apologies…
To Adam Saad, Alex Pearce, Angus Brayshaw, Brandon Ellis, Charlie Cameron, Christian Salem, Daniel McStay, Darcy Gardiner, David Swallow, Dom Sheed, Hayden Crozier, Jack Lonie, Jack Macrae, Jack Newnes, Jack Viney, Jed Bews, Jonathon Patton, Kade Kolodjashnij, Kamdyn McIntosh, Lewis Taylor, Liam Duggan, Luke Dunstan, Luke McDonald, Matt Crouch, Matthew Taberner, Mitch Honeychurch, Nakia Cockatoo, Nick Graham, Nick Vlastuin, Paddy McCartin, Sam Docherty, Sam Mayes, Stephen Coniglio, Taylor Adams, Tom Mitchell and Touk Miller.

These are all players that are in their age-23 season or younger, who project as very good, established AFL players, but that couldn’t make this totally subjective power rankings list.

So are we in the middle of a golden age of young talent in the AFL? It’s not a question that I can find an empirical answer to. That I can name five dozen players, all aged 23 or younger, and that look set to monster the league to varying degrees over the next decade, suggests we might be.