It’s not officially an AFL preseason until a group of The Roar‘s AFL experts come together to create the most necessary list in sport: the top 50 AFL players for 2018.
This exercise has been around for some time now. We started doing it as a group four seasons ago, which would make this the fourth annual Roar AFL top 50.
Unlike other top 50s, personal biases can play only a small role in the final order. But they still play a role, as will be revealed over the rest of this week when Jay Croucher, Josh Elliot, Madelyn Friend and Cam Rose run you through spots 11 through to 50. I have the easiest task of all: telling you who are the ten best players in the league heading into the 2018 season.
We go in reverse order for precisely this reason: if we were counting from 50 to one, essentially the list would be a wrap at the close of play on Wednesday given the best of the best are a somewhat known quantity. Starting with the top bracket and working our way down is more interesting. But fear not, this group of ten counts up from ten to one.
There has been some change at the top of The Roar AFL top 50. Three players have dropped out – one to the teens, one to the 30s and another to the 40s – bringing three new entrants. One of them, Josh Kelly, has come from the clouds as far as this list goes, making his list debut as a top ten player.
Our panel was unanimous on the top five players. Every voter had the same five players at the very top of their respective lists, just in a slightly different order. The top ten was also quite similar: Jay, Madelyn and I had nine of the ten in our own lists while Cam and Josh had eight. Croucher’s list was the closest to the pin: he nailed the top eight except that his fourth and fifth picks were inverted and his ninth man was tenth and his tenth seed ended up in 11th overall. The man knows football.
Nobody picked the same ten players in their own top ten. Who made it in? And which Brownlow medallist – there are only five of them in the league – has been given the true highest honour in the sport: the number one spot in The Roar AFL top 50? Let’s find out.
10. Rory Sloane
Adelaide’s number one man, Rory Sloane enhanced his reputation in two ways last year. First was his scintillating start, worth 12 Brownlow votes in the first six games. Second was the way he dealt with a hard tag applied by most coaches following said scintillating start to the year.
Sloane modified his game, becoming the enabler for the rest of Adelaide’s on-ball parade. His positioning, blocking and bullocking at stoppages doesn’t show up on the stats sheet, but it’s telling Sloane still averaged 13.6 contested possessions from Round 9. That would have seen him finish inside the top ten if it was his full-season mark.
9. Gary Ablett Jr
The injuries don’t help. Gary Ablett Jr, Geelong’s own, is one of the best five players in the game. But this list is about what’s coming, not what’s been. Playing 49 games in four seasons (88 games) does not bode well for Ablett’s ability to play a full year. That he’s still rated this high shows how much impact he has when he’s on the field.
Ablett averaged 33 touches and 7.6 clearances a game in his last year at Gold Coast, huge marks for anyone, let alone a 33-year-old with a series of niggling injuries.
8. Scott Pendlebury
The sun still rises in the east, water remains decidedly wet and Scott Pendlebury continues to average 28 disposals a game in the Australian Football League. Pendlebury has never been a mass accumulator – he’s only topped 40 touches once in his career – but he doesn’t need to be. Time moves slower when he has the ball in hand, and even slower for Pendlebury himself, who seems to make the best decision every single time.
7. Marcus Bontempelli
Pendlebury’s heir, Marcus Bontempelli, looked a little less ethereal in the Dogs’ down year. Possession counts don’t do a lot for the Bont, because, like Pendlebury, it’s more about what happens with the ball.
Bontempelli’s favourite situation is running three steps ahead of a congested passage of play, breaking free of an opponent – pre or post-ball delivery – and delivering it to a teammate to advantage. His skills on the deck are other-worldly for a man standing over 190 centimetres tall.
6. Josh Kelly
The bolter of our list, Kelly surged from outside the top 50 right to the brink of the top five after a stunning fourth year in the league. Indeed, the Giant didn’t garner a single vote from last year’s panel, which looks like a gross oversight.
Kelly does a lot of his work on the outside – he played on the wing for the first three years of his career – but with four preseasons under his belt added the size required to play in the centre. His lateral quickness and long boot make him an impossible match-up for any team looking to contain and control his influence.
5. Alex Rance
Inarguably the best defensive player in the game, Alex Rance continues to mount a case for ‘best defender ever’ status. Like a lot of other players at the pointy end, Rance’s value isn’t in the ones and zeros; it’s in what he does to bend the will of opposition teams.
Yes, he’s got a phenomenal one-on-one win rate and is one of the only guys in the league you’d trust to nullify an opponent that has space to work in, but what we can’t measure is how Rance changes his opponents’ behaviour. The eye test says he’s a force unlike any other in the league.
4. Nat Fyfe
Speaking of which, the Nat Fyfe Doubters Club lost almost all of its members in the second half of last season. An injury-hit slow start – and, guys, Fyfe averaged 14 contested possessions, 5.2 clearances and 25 disposals – gave way to a return to planetary destruction after a midseason break.
Between Round 15 and Round 23, Fyfe averaged 28 disposals, 6.9 clearances, 16.4 contested possessions and, crucially, 2.6 contested marks per game. The clearance figure is a little lower than in his Brownlow year, but otherwise, he was back. A full preseason post-two broken legs and there’s nothing to suggest those nine rounds are not his benchmark for 2018.
3. Lance Franklin
Another 70-goal year, another Coleman medal and another 20-plus vote Brownlow Medal run. Lance Franklin’s fourth year as a Sydney Swan suggests he is no closer to slowing down than I am to retiring.
Franklin added to his hall of fame induction tape with another long-running goal. Every time he gathers the ball on the left wing it feels like something incredible is about to happen.
With an uncluttered Sydney forward line looking likely, Franklin should enter this year with another 70 goals on his mind. That would take him to seventh on the all-time leaderboard ahead of Leigh Matthews and Matthew Lloyd.
2. Patrick Dangerfield
Patrick Dangerfield had a better year in 2017 than he did in 2016, yet he didn’t win the Brownlow nor maintain his spot atop The Roar AFL top 50. He was a unanimous number two, too. That’s pretty rough.
On account of some tactical flair from Geelong coach Chris Scott, we learnt Dangerfield is one of the most potent forward-50 marking options in the game; too fast for a key defender, too strong for a more nimble mid-sized option.
He got near enough to 30 touches and two goals a game that we might as well call it accomplished. Add to that his continued dominance as Geelong’s leading midfielder and, well, it took a lot to displace him from number one seed.
1. Dustin Martin
There’s not a lot more that needs to be said about Martin beyond a list of his achievements: premiership player, Norm Smith medallist, All Australian, AFL Players Association MVP and Brownlow medallist. No-one has ever done that before in a single season, and these awards have been around for some time now (the newest is the MVP, first awarded in 1982).
Martin always threatened to become one of the best players in the game, but the best? I don’t think anyone saw his 2017 season coming. We’re left with no choice but to shower him with the praise that comes with being named the best player in the game today.
So that’s that for now. Players one to ten are almost always the least controversial picks in a top 50 list, and this year proves no exception. But 11 to 20 and beyond? That’s where it gets interesting.