Welcome to day four of The Roar’s AFL top 50 players of 2018.
Yesterday, Madelyn wrote about players 21-30, and today I’ll be looking at numbers 31 through 40.
This is where these countdowns get really interesting, because the deeper you go the harder it gets to split players out.
Every reader will already have in mind a number of players they think should have been in the top 30 but are yet to be seen. Some of those may not even figure in our countdown at all.
31. Rory Laird
Rory Laird was a unanimous pick among our voters, with all five panellists putting him in between 24-39 in their individual rankings. He is the first half-back flanker in our countdown, thus making him the best player in this position in the league, at least according to us.
Another player who might have claimed this honour was Sam Docherty, but his pre-season ACL injury has meant he wasn’t considered this year.
Laird is the professional’s professional, with clarity of mind and crispness of foot his two standout features, along with astute reading of the play – therefore he makes the best decisions, chooses the best options, and then has the skill to deliver, all after being in the right spot in the first place.
Rebound off half-back is a must for successful teams, and the 45 degree in-board kick is an important attacking weapon – no-one does it better than Laird.
32. Patrick Cripps
It’s not spoiling too much from here on to state that Patrick Cripps is the only Carlton representative our top 50. Madelyn and I were most in love with the young midfield beast with the centre-half-forward build, and both of us expecting him to go to another level in 2018. Every footy fan in the country should be hoping he can stay injury free.
Cripps has only played in bad sides, but at the age of 21 was already the best midfielder in a team consisting of Bryce Gibbs and Marc Murphy, no lightweights themselves.
He specialises in the tough stuff, getting first hands on the ball in contested situations, and winning clearances against the best players in the league. He tackles fiercely on the rare occasions he is beaten.
Even people who hate Carlton love watching Patrick Cripps, which is probably the biggest compliment of all.
33. Ben Brown
The Kangaroos had a couple of players around the fringes, but ultimately it was only Ben Brown who made the top 50. Josh had him as high as 16 from an individual perspective, while Ryan didn’t find room for him at all.
Brown announced himself as a player in just his ninth game, when leading North to an elimination final victory with a four-goal effort in 2014 as a 21-year-old, and has continued to improve and be a shining light in the years since.
Unfortunately, his rising form has coincided with North’s downward spiral, but a strong finish to 2017 suggests a Coleman medal will be his in the near future.
Brown is a superb set shot at goal, is as good a mark on the lead as there is in the league, and he uses his height to advantage in marking situations, making him difficult to defend.
34. Isaac Heeney
Many people believe Isaac Heeney is destined to be a top-ten player in the competition, and it’s not a stretch to suggest he may fulfil the number one spot on this list some day.
Entering 2018, three of our panel had him rated between 30-32, while two others didn’t have him in their 50 and just want to see another season first.
Heeney was arguably Sydney’s player of the finals in 2016 – in just his second season mind you – but was a late starter in 2017 thanks to a pre-season bout of glandular fever. Such a setback didn’t prevent far more midfield time last year, enabling him to enhance his possession and clearance rate, albeit at the expense of scoreboard impact.
Heeney is clean when the hot ball is there to be won, powerful once he has it in hand, is strong overhead, and has a touch of magic that all the greats have. He’s destined to be one of them, and is ready to explode this year. Sydney will have one hand on the cup if he does.
35. Bryce Gibbs
Bryce Gibbs has been a model of consistency across 11 seasons, in a career worthy of the number one draft pick he was. Along with Marc Murphy and Matthew Kruezer, he has been somewhat maligned over the years, possibly because he didn’t deliver Carlton to the promised land as was expected when they were rebuilding in the Brett Ratten years.
Gibbs just does everything well. He can win his own ball, possesses fine skills, is a regular scoreboard hitter, and doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty, finishing top 20 in the league for tackles in 2017.
Not yet 29, Gibbs is destined to be a 350 game player. Adelaide certainly paid to get him, and rightly so. They can win the flag thanks to his inclusion.
36. Nic Naitanui
Nic Naitanui is the first ruckman to appear in this year’s top 50, which tells us two things – firstly, The Roar panel, along with the football world, are a bit down on ruckmen at the moment, and secondly, Naitanui is a rare talent that can hold the number one mantle for his position despite not having played in about 18 months.
Plenty of critics will line up to tell you what Nic Nat doesn’t do, such as win a high amount of possession or take a lot of marks, but as time goes on there are more defenders of him to tell you what he can – he’s in the top handful of tap ruckman the sport has ever seen, his follow-up at ground level is second to none, and the balls he wins at ground level in contested situations are always influential.
He has match-winning traits, and they are regularly on display when he takes the field, which is not something that can be said about many ruckmen.
37. Steele Sidebottom
Four of the five panellists had Steele Sidebottom rated between 33-46, so he has found his right level around the 37 mark. He’s similar to Gibbs in that he’s an uber-professional who has maintained a steady, consistent high level for a long period of time. While certainly more noted for his outside play, he’s no slouch on the inside either.
Not many run harder or longer than Sidebottom, and you can find him marking in the back pocket and popping up for a shot at goal in the same play often enough. At the very least he’ll be presenting himself as an option the length of the field.
He’s a more natural footballer than someone like a Tom Scully, is more impactful than an Andrew Gaff, and is more highly skilled than both of them. Hence why he appears here as either the first or second wingman on this list, depending on your view of Mitch Duncan.
38. Clayton Oliver
Clayton Oliver’s rise in 2017 was meteoric, enough to see him placed in the 20’s by Madelyn and I, while Ryan, Josh and Jay didn’t have him in their 50. It is starkly notable that Madelyn and I all had much higher ratings for younger players like Cripps, Heeney and Oliver than the other panellists. It’s clear that we believe the future has arrived. Oliver is the only third year player in the top 50.
Oliver only dropped below 26 disposals in a game once in 2017, and even then he had 24. He is on a run of 22 straight games (all last season) of double-figure contested possessions, and he averaged almost seven per game in both clearances and tackles. This is a man that craves body contact when on the field.
Oliver is a one-touch player in the fiercest heat, and knows what he is going to do with the ball before he gets it, choosing almost always to handball to a teammate he then hopes can create space or move it onto someone who will.
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39. Dane Rampe
This is Dane Rampe’s second consecutive year in the 30s for us, and the Swan certainly deserves his place in this conversation. His versatility as a defender is almost unmatched in the league, given that he is equally at home creating play from defensive 50 or half-back, but is also often asked to play taller and stronger than he is on the opposition’s best forward.
Rampe missed Rounds 2-6 in 2017, and Sydney infamously lost all of them. His team had started to right the ship by the time he came back in Round 9, but he gave them a defensive steel that had been previously lacking.
The Swans are at the thick end of premiership talk again this season, and Rampe is again one of the reasons why.
40. Max Gawn
Max Gawn is the second ruckman in this year’s top 50, driven by Josh having him at 21 in his individual rankings, in a show of faith that he can return to his best after an injury-interrupted 2017.
Gawn’s 2016 season was one of the great ruckman years. He dominated hit outs, placing them to the advantage of his mids all around the compass; he was a contested mark beast both inside 50 and dropping behind the ball; he kicked multiple goals half a dozen times, got plenty of the ball as a link man in chains of possession, and laid his share of tackles when the time came.
Melbourne must surely play finals in 2018. Surely. And when they do, Max Gawn will be at the heart of it.