We’re getting towards the pointy end now in The Roar’s Top 50. After Jay ran through players 50-41, Josh did 40-31 and Cam went through 30-21, we’ve now entered the top-20. Four Eagles are to come in the next ten players.
Is that an overreaction to their premiership success or, perhaps, a sign that said success shouldn’t have been the surprise it was? These are seriously good footballers.
20. Isaac Heeney (Sydney)
Heeney is everything you want in a footballer. He’s strong, brave, athletic, agile, clean and skilful. Never off balance and quick off his feet, he’s basically a huge cat carved out of granite.
The only real problem with Heeney is that there is only one of him. Comfortable and capable in any area of the ground, the young Swan might already be best utility in the competition.
He played perhaps his best game of 2018 in Round 21 against Melbourne at the MCG where his spectacular aerial work in defence held off the fast-finishing Demons and all but secured Sydney’s finals berth. What’s easily forgotten is that he also booted a pair of goals that day – one of six times last season he kicked multiple goals.
His basic counting stats might never show his true worth, but on impact, Heeney is already one of the game’s best players.
19. Josh J Kennedy (West Coast)
Since 2014, no player in the competition has averaged more goals per game than West Coast’s fleet-footed colossus. Just once in his past 91 games has Kennedy been held goalless – the 2015 grand final, ooph.
The two-time Coleman medallist leads straight and hard, and kicks the same. An underrated part of his game is his pressure and tackling, which is one of the reasons the Eagles can afford to play so tall in their front third in an era where groundballs and pressure acts are king.
The major concern with Kennedy is his durability. He missed 11 of 25 games last season after missing five of 24 in 2017 and has already been ruled out of the JLT series.
Neither Josh nor I were discouraged, each of us ranking him in the top-10. Ryan and Cam were a little more cautious, rating him 39 and 42, respectively.
18. Rory Sloane (Adelaide)
A foot injury all but derailed the star Crow’s 2018 and possibly Adelaide’s season as well, but a fresh season awaits and a fit Sloane is now co-captain – a position he seemed destined for the moment he re-signed with the club.
Sloane is the ultimate no-frills footballer, an unflinching inside bull who lacks for little when he finds the ball in space.
Forty-four Brownlow votes across the 2016-17 seasons are a testament to his quality and at 28 with fewer than 180 games until his belt it’s reasonable to think he can get back to that level after a frustrating 2018.
The voters were mostly on the same page on Sloane, ranking him between 14 and 28.
17. Elliot Yeo (West Coast)
The one man who could rightfully challenge Heeney as the game’s premier utility is the second Eagle in this group.
There’s no part of the ground where Yeo can’t thrive. He can win the hard footy, spread to the outside when required, lock up a man either around the ball or as a defender, and is exceptional in the air. He can be a bit of a butcher by foot, but that is perhaps his only weakness as a footballer.
Like several Eagles, Yeo took his game to a new level in 2018, setting career-high marks in kicks, disposals, tackles, clearances, inside-50s and contested possessions, while still remembering where the goals are with a very respectable 14 in 25 games. He was stiff to miss out on his second All Australian selection.
At 25, Yeo is just coming into his prime and the rankings reflect that. Jay was highest at 10, while the rest of us had him in the 20s.
16. Robbie Gray (Port Adelaide)
Gray didn’t seem to be quite as impactful in 2018, but by the end of the season he’d booted 36 goals while still averaging better than 20 touches a game and had was selected as an All Australian for the fourth time.
The Power mid-forward is the ultimate conundrum: he is the rare footballer who is not just capable, but brilliant either as a midfielder or a forward.
Despite spending so much time near the goals, his average of two centre clearances a game was good enough to crack the top 30 and put him ahead of the likes of Scott Pendlebury, Stephen Coniglio and Dyson Heppell.
We might have seen the best of Gray, but he remains a wizard at stoppages and a headache for defenders any time he’s one on one. Few players read the ball and the play better.
Jay was highest on Gray at nine, with Josh lowest at 31.
15. Andrew Gaff (West Coast)
Andrew Gaff as been a very good footballer for a good while now. Often mocked for his outside play, his critics missed that he was in fact an exceptional outside player – a smart and efficient runner who used the ball just the same.
But in 2018, the winger added a bit more edge to his game and if not for a shocking moment of madness in which he assaulted young Docker Andrew Brayshaw, he might be higher on this list and – much more importantly – a premiership player.
Gaff averaged career-highs in kicks, disposals, tackles, clearances and goals last season, and at 26 should be right in his prime to to maintain that level – he won’t be lacking motivation either.
Ryan was highest at five, with Jay not far behind at eight. Cam was not quite convinced at 30.
14. Patrick Cripps (Carlton)
If you could pick any player in the league to win a hard footy, Cripps would probably be your choice.
The two-time Carlton best-and-fairest winner is a mountain of a man who uses that size to great advantage in tight situations.
If there’s a knock on Cripps it’s that his kicking can let him down, which might explain Jay rating him in the mid-20s. No such concerns for Cam, who rated his “favourite player” at No.6.
Eleven goals in 2018 was a nice return for the soon-to-be 24-year-old considering how much was asked of him in the middle. It might be time for the Blues to bite the bullet and push him forward more regularly, both for the sake of his body and to demand more of his midfield mates, who aren’t yet carrying enough of the load.
There’s no doubt Cripps can still improve, which is a scary thought.
13. Stephen Coniglio (GWS)
It can be hard to pinpoint what it is specifically that makes Stephen Coniglio such a good footballer – he just does everything really, really well.
Want a hard ball won? He’s your man. Need to clamp a dangerous opponent? Just point him out. Looking for someone to push forward and pinch a goal? Can do.
Coniglio was one of eight players to average 20 disposals, ten contested possessions and a goal a game last season, and only one player in that group (Patrick Dangerfield) averaged more touches.
His consistency was reflected in the rankings, with four voters placing him between 11 and 13.
12. Max Gawn (Melbourne)
Evaluating the true value of rucks is a skill I openly admit I am yet to master. For all of his tapwork excellence, it is is work around the ground and particularly in the air that makes Gawn most valuable.
Simon Goodwin seems to share that view. When Jake Lever’s knee exploded in Round 11 thanks to the shifting Docklands surface no one seemed to care to talk about, the Demons lost their best intercept marker.
The Demons obviously went to work looking for an answer and after their Round 13 bye, they seemed to have one – and it was Gawn. From rounds 14-23, the 208cm ruckman averaged 2.8 intercept marks a game, which was actually better than the 2.5 Lever averaged last year.
With Jesse Hogan out and Braydon Preuss in, it seems the Demons are keen to see if that marking dominance can transfer to the other end of the ground. If it can, this ranking will look too low.
11. Jeremy McGovern (West Coast)
Speaking of marking, there’s no one better at it than West Coast’s intercept king – and he now has a hell of a highlight to go with any video package designed to emphasise his biggest strength.
After three straight All Australian selections, McGovern sits comfortably alongside Alex Rance as the game’s premier defender.
He is an excellent reader of the play and, justifiably, always willing to back himself in the air. His defensive one-on-one numbers dipped last year after being rated No.1 by Champion Data in 2016 and 2017, but it wasn’t enough to put off the voters, with four rating him between six and 12.
Ryan, however, was so desperate to avoid writing about McGovern that he put him at 30, perhaps he can explain himself tomorrow when he reveals the top 10.