There are young guns everywhere we look, and the quality of young players seems to get better and better every season.
There are 18 players on-field for an AFL team so let’s go through and rank the AFL’s best players under 23 years of age.
Patrick Cripps (pick #13, 2013 national draft)
Cripps could not have been more impressive. After an injury-ravaged first season, he ranked eighth in the AFL for contested possessions and 11th in clearances last season and has started 2016 in strong fashion, improving those rankings to third and first respectively.
Having won Carlton’s best and fairest last year, he is already coping with attention from opposition teams and yet continues to dominate. It’s easy to forget that Cripps is just 21 years old; the East Fremantle product has the AFL world at his feet.
Lachie Neale (pick #58, 2011 national draft)
The Dockers’ season has been bleak and despondent, but Neale is one shining light. Despite speculation of him moving back him to South Australia, Neale’s game has remained on point as he leads the league in both total disposals and contested possessions, while ranking seventh in clearances.
At 22 years of age and with 77 games under his belt, Neale should only get better. For him to perform at this level without Nat Fyfe speaks volumes to his development. He is shaping as an absolute steal, having been taken so late in the draft.
Zach Merrett (pick #26, 2012 national draft)
Nothing much has gone right for Essendon in the last few years, but one positive has been Merrett. The young Bombers star has gradually increased his possession averages from 15 in his rookie year, to 22 last season and 28 through eight games this season, mixing contested and uncontested possessions effectively.
Merrett also ranks in the top 20 in tackles. Having been picked at #26 in the 2013 national draft, it is looking likely that Essendon will look back on a bleak time in club history thankful there was at least one shining light in Merrett.
Rory Laird (pick #5, 2011 rookie draft)
Laird was selected in the rookie draft and is well on the way to emulating the likes of Dean Cox, Brett Kirk and Matt Priddis in becoming a bargain selection from that method of player selection.
Ranking among the league leaders in both uncontested and total disposals, Laird has become a key component of the Crows midfield depth. He leads the league in effective disposal percentage for players averaging 25 or more possessions, and the Crows have lost the two games that he has missed so far in 2016. At just 22, Laird seems ready to move into a permanent midfield role.
Ollie Wines (pick #7, 2012 national draft)
Wines is just 21 years old. He has played 62 games and carries himself with the poise and confidence of a veteran, while being as hard an inside midfielder as there is in the competition.
He has ranked in the top 20 on contested possessions in three of his four seasons and in the top 20 for clearances in two of those seasons, including 2016. He ranks among the league leaders in tackles and features in the Port Adelaide leadership group. He has been statistically impressive and proven himself to be a capable leader and should only get better.
Chad Wingard (pick #6, 2011 national draft)
Wingard has kicked 40 plus goals in the last three seasons, and is one of only two non-key forwards to do this. He is a dual All-Australian and was a key factor in the 2014 assault, kicking seven goals in his three finals games. He has started 2016 in an inconsistent manner due to injury but remains an elite small forward at just 22 years of age.
Jesse Hogan (pick #2, 2012 mini-draft)
Rumours abound that the price on Hogan’s head will be $15m for ten years when he next comes out of contract. In today’s AFL, that might be fair value. Hogan debuted last season as the focal point for a terrible Melbourne team and had an instant impact.
He averaged more goals, marks and contested marks per game than Jonathan Brown, Matthew Pavlich, Wayne Carey or Nick Riewoldt did at the same age and ranked in the top five in both marks and contested marks. He is well on the way to replicating that performance this season in a vastly improved team and may be the most valuable player on this list. Midfielders come and go, quality key position players are far more valuable and Hogan is already elite.
Isaac Heeney (pick #18, 2014 national draft)
Melbourne bid their first pick, being #2 in the 2014 draft on Heeney and the Swans were able to match that with the 18th overall pick. Whether or not you agree with the academy draft process and the concessions received by teams in the northern states or not, Sydney have secured a gem in Heeney.
At just 184cm he has proven himself to be a more than capable marking forward and has kicked a goal in every game this season. He has found himself playing in the midfield, no mean feat given the quality of player fighting for those positions at the Swans. His statistics don’t scream star, but his impact on games is apparent.
He was far from the Swans worst performer as they were eliminated from the finals in straight sets last year, and the sky seems the limit for a young man who has just turned 20.
Jake Stringer (pick #5, 2012 national draft)
The Dogs are a fantastic story and Stringer embodies this team as far as the media is concerned. Very few players are known just by their nickname, and most have done more than ‘The Package’ but the excitement on display when Stringer goes near the ball is infectious.
Stringer kicked 56 goals in 2015 and is on target to match that tally in 2016, and the sight of him steamrolling through any player is sheer delight. The next challenge for the 21 year old is consistency and stronger performances against the best sides, both of which should come quickly if his team continues their march up the ladder.
Marcus Bontempelli (pick #4, 2013 national draft)
Bontempelli was robbed of the Rising Star award in 2014 but has left no doubt as to who the Bulldogs would rather, him or the award winner Lewis Taylor. He has been seen as starting ‘slowly’ in 2016, a testament to how far he has come in such a short time given he is averaging more than 22 possessions a game and ranks fifth in inside 50s.
At 192cm and 85kg, he represents the new-age of midfielders but perhaps the most impressive statistic is that for all his athleticism he is thriving as an inside midfielder. To watch him play one can see that the outside skill and silky movement come naturally; there seems very little that will stop ‘The Bont’ from becoming an elite midfielder in the next few seasons. Given he has just turned 20 years of age, one figures the Dogs are happy to be patient.
Jack Viney (pick #26, 2012 national draft)
Viney has started 2016 in explosive style, averaging 28 possessions a game and ranking ninth in contested possessions and fourth in clearances. He ranked top 25 in those two categories last season and has improved in every area across his first four years.
A tough-nosed competitor, his natural evolution over the coming years should see him improve his disposal and become a more attacking threat. Having just signed a four year deal, the future seems rosy for Viney and the Demons will look at him to become a leader; it seems a safe bet.
Stephen Coniglio (pick #2, 2011 national draft)
Coniglio has had an injury-interrupted start to his career but when he has played he has been extremely impressive. He has never averaged less than 19 possessions a game in a season and plays a contested, efficient brand of football.
As a former #2 pick, the Giants expect Coniglio to be a pillar of their future and on exposed form when he is fit he is a very good player. That is hardly surprising, and it ranks him very favourably with a number of the higher-profile players on this list.
Brandon Ellis (pick #15, 2011 national draft)
Ellis seems to have been around for years, and is approaching his 100th game before his 23rd birthday. Over the last three years, consistency has been key for this Tiger pup. He has averaged more than 25 possessions a game in each of those three seasons, mastering an uncontested mode of play and doing so in a reasonably efficient manner.
Perhaps most impressively, Ellis has improved his contested possession numbers each season and is becoming an inside and outside midfielder.
Joe Daniher (pick #10, 2012 national draft)
This son of a gun has had his development fast tracked given Essendon’s current situation and their lack of key forwards. In 2016 the results have been mixed as he is a averaging a little more than a goal a game but features among the league leaders in contested marks.
The fact that the Bombers are on target to be historically bad in attack doesn’t help a key position forward, but his mark averages are up and he is receiving the full attention of opposition key back men. At just 22 and with 56 games under his belt, his development over the next few years should provide Essendon with a pillar around which to build their attack for the next decade.
Dom Tyson (pick #3, 2011 national draft)
Tyson is another early draft pick who turned his back on a northern expansion club to return home to the bright lights of Melbourne. After two seasons at the Greater Western Sydney Giants, Tyson has played 45 games through a little over two seasons at the Demons and averaged more than 21 possessions across that time.
He plays a brand which is both contested and uncontested and has kicked a goal a game in 2016. Tyson complements Viney as part of an elite young midfield and is as good a kick as any young player on the game today.
Brodie Grundy (pick #18, 2012 national draft)
Grundy has become the Magpies #1 ruckman. Ranks second in tackles among ruckman, third in contested possessions and second in total disposals. His tap work needs improving (14tg in clearances, 21st in hit outs) but he is spending 85per cent of his time on the ground, he is being asked to do a lot.
Jack Macrae (pick #6, 2012 national draft)
Macrae is the ultimate outside runner and does it to an elite level. He ranks in the top 30 in both disposals and uncontested possessions over last three years, averages more than 26 possessions over last three years and 24.9 possessions per game over his career.
He has failed to get 25 possessions in just six of his last 31 games; he was dropped for poor defensive pressure last season and becoming consistent in this area remains his next development area.
Taylor Adams (pick #13, 2011 national draft)
Adams started his career at the GWS Giants and like so many early draft picks, he moved home and joined the league’s biggest club, Collingwood. Since joining the Pies he has ranked in the top 15 in both disposals and uncontested possessions and has proven to be an upper-echelon midfielder who is particularly effective on the outside of the contest. He was traded for Heath Shaw back in 2014, a trade which has been a prime example of a win-win result for both teams involved.
So how do we rank the young guns? Like this.
The rest – Coniglio, Viney, Adams, Laird, Tyson, Stringer, Daniher, Grundy
Close but no cigar?
Sam Docherty, Cory Gregson, Lachie Plowman, Tom Mitchell, Lachie Whitfield, Toby Greene, Luke Dunstan, Jack Billings