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AFL trades: The top ten out-of-contract players to watch in 2019

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Editor
5th March, 2019
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A new AFL season is less than a fortnight’s time away, and today I’m looking at players whose contract narratives are set to be of the most interest in 2019.

Yes, I know this is much earlier than many folks like to start thinking about the ‘silly season’, but I’m a bit of a silly guy, I guess.

And on the topic of silliness, you’re kidding yourself if you think clubs aren’t already thinking about the stuff behind closed doors.

So, without any further ado, let me take you through my top ten out-of-contract players who’ll be rejecting North Melbourne making trade rumour news.

10. Josh Kelly

At the start of the year, Kelly looked like he could be the big trade speculation story, but recent news suggests he might be off this list entirely sooner rather than later.

A report from The Age last week that Kelly has indicated he wants to remain at the Giants in 2020 and beyond was the most recent of several news resources to suggest he’ll resign with Greater Western Sydney soon.

This comes despite the fact that several in the media such as Jay Clark in June last year intimated that Kelly is likely to become a North Melbourne player at some point in the future.

What kind of contract Kelly signs with the Giants will give us some indication as to his plans. If GWS can get him on a long-term deal, it’ll suggest he intends to remain with the club more or less indefinitely.

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The other option would be for him to sign another two-year deal, which ends in him being a restricted free agent in 2021, at which point he could leverage his position to get a big-money deal – whether it’s with the Giants or a new club.

Josh Kelly

(Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

9. Tim Kelly

Like the other Kelly on this list, we can probably already plot a fairly accurate course for Tim’s trade future.

Like any other draftee, he signed an initial two-year contract when he was taken by Geelong in the 2017 draft, and this meant that when he requested a trade to the West Coast Eagles at the end of last year, the Cats had the option of holding him to the final year of that deal.

In the 2018 trade period game of musical chairs, Kelly was the only player with a desire to move who wasn’t able to find a seat at the end of the song.

Geelong will hold out hope that they can convince Kelly to change his mind between now and October, and you can expect that party line to be trotted out regularly.

A change of heart seems unlikely though – expect Kelly to again ask for a trade west at the end of the season. This time the Cats won’t have an ace up their sleeve, and will have to make a deal.

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8. Stefan Martin

Ever since experiencing something of a career-revival in late 2014, barely a year has gone by without there being some hint of speculation about Stefan Martin having an interest in returning home to Victoria.

In the past, these discussions have usually died off quickly thanks to the lengthy contract extension Martin signed at the end of 2015 – but at the end of 2019, he will be out of contract.

Geelong, in particular, were linked to him at the end of last year, and aside from drafting mature-age ruckman Darcy Fort, didn’t really do anything over the offseason to address this need.

If, at the end of the year, the Cats still feel like they can have a crack at the premiership in 2020, it wouldn’t be a total shock if a few things fall neatly into place and Martin makes a move home to Victoria.

Some other Victorian clubs might have an interest depending on how their own ruck options perform in season 2019, but at this early stage Geelong would seem the most likely suitors.

Martin won’t qualify for free agency this year as he hasn’t spent the minimum eight years total the Lions and was never previously a free agent at Melbourne.

7. Zak Jones

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There was significant trade speculation around Jones in 2017, as a breakout season coincided with him being out of contract.

Essendon, Melbourne, North Melbourne and St Kilda were all linked to Jones during 2017, but he ultimately decided to re-sign with Sydney on a two-year deal.

He is out of contract again this year and although his form was less impressive in 2018 than the year prior, clubs are likely show interest again – especially if he has a resurgence.

Both the Dons and Dees made big acquisitions during last year’s trade period, which could affect how much salary cap space they have available to pursue new recruits.

If they do pursue Jones, Melbourne may have a unique edge in that they can offer Jones the chance to play with his brother, Nathan.

2019 will only be Jones’ sixth year in the AFL, so it wouldn’t surprise to see him sign a two-year extension and defer a decision on whether or not to return home until he is eligible for free agency at the end of 2021.

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6. Aaron Francis

Francis, like Tim Kelly, is of interest because he has previously requested a trade home – at the end of 2017 – and instead been held to his contract.

But in 2019, he has more options.

The initial two-year extension he signed on top of his original draftee contract expires this year, which means if Francis does have his heart set on returning home, he could force Essendon’s hand.

That seems unlikely at this stage however, because after a difficult 2017 season Francis seemed to find his rhythm in 2018, breaking into the senior side for the last five games of the year.

He didn’t repeat his trade request again at the end of 2018, and my gut feel is that he’ll reward the investment the Bombers have put into him by re-signing with them for 2020 and beyond.

Still, if he can repeat the impressive form he showed glimpses of late last year on a more regular basis, the Crows and the Power are bound to come calling.

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5. Peter Wright

After hacking hard into the club’s playing list at the end of 2018, Gold Coast will face a big test early as to whether or not the changes made have been good enough to keep quality talent at the club.

‘Two metre’ Peter Wright is out of contract at the end of the season and although he wasn’t sighted much in 2018, Victorian clubs are bound to have an interest in the 203cm, 22-year-old key forward.

Wright’s 58 goals across seasons 2016 and 2017 were early signs of his immense potential as a tall forward before his development stalled in 2018, largely due to injury.

Following Tom Lynch’s departure, Gold Coast will be hoping Wright is ready not just to fill those big shoes but also commit to the club for 2020 and beyond.

Mitch Cleary recently reported on AFL.com.au that Wright is close to re-signing with Gold Coast on a multi-year deal, which would be a significant coup for the Suns.

It’s an interesting development as I would’ve suspected that after an injury-riddled year in 2018, Wright would want to put some form together on field in the hopes of maximising his value before considering a new deal.

But perhaps if Gold Coast are willing to show faith by putting a big, long-term offer to him before the season begins – something they certainly have the salary cap space to do – that could see Wright locked away before any other clubs came calling.

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If it does get to the point where rival clubs are showing an interest I’d suspect Hawthorn and Collingwood, having missed out on Lynch, would be leading the charge.

Peter Wright

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

4. Jacob Hopper

Many pundits (including myself) suspected Hopper was a near certainty to look for a trade away from the Giants when his initial two-year draft contract ran out at the end of 2017. But, instead, he surprised by recommitting for a further two years.

In 2018, Hopper played nearly a full season for the first time, averaging 21 disposals and four tackles per game and kicking ten goals for the year.

He has massive untapped potential and, along with Tim Taranto, is one of the first players GWS will be looking to make more prominent in their midfield following the departures of Dylan Shiel and Tom Scully.

His decision on his future is likely to be shaped by his 2019 form. If he has a breakout year and shows more of his elite potential, a rival club might make him a megabucks offer that is simply too good to pass up.

If, instead, he has another solid season as per 2018, I’d suspect he’s more likely to re-sign with the Giants.

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3. Jack Billings

When last out of contract in 2017, Jack Billings was one of the more surprising players to see talks drag on for, ultimately waiting until August of that season to sign an extension.

The Saints were a side of reasonable quality at that point in time, not far back from the top eight, and what the delay and ultimately surprisingly short deal seemed to suggest was that the parties couldn’t agree on terms for a lengthier commitment.

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Why? Perhaps one or even both of the parties had cold feet about making a long-term commitment to the other. Perhaps money was the issue. Who knows.

Whatever the problem, a two-year extension effectively allowed Billings and the Saints to defer solving it, but in 2019 it’s back on the agenda.

Things have got worse for the Saints in the time since then and Billings’ personal form hasn’t held stable either, suffering declines in both disposals and goals from 2017 to 2018.

A lot has changed at St Kilda over the offseason and they’ll be hoping that everything clicks nicely into place. If so, expect Billings to commit for the long term.

If not? It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Billings considers his options should the Saints’ 2019 go awry. He could be an absolute star in the right environment. All Australian calibre certainly.

2. Jack Martin

Martin was reported to want out of the Suns at the end of 2018, but with so many players leaving the club, it appears Gold Coast insisted on holding him to his contract and no public indication of his trade request was ever given.

What was reported at the time was that Martin’s preference was to move to Essendon, but when this story fell silent, the Bombers instead landed Dylan Shiel, giving up two first-round draft picks and presumably a significant chunk of cap space to do so.

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Does that make it difficult for them to bring Martin in at the end of 2019 should he again put forward a desire to leave the Suns – or is the door open for other clubs to have a crack? Any side in the competition would be interested in his silky skills.

While Gold Coast were willing to trade out a still-contracted Steven May last year, they didn’t do the same for Martin, suggesting perhaps they feel there is still the potential to win him over and have him commit long-term. They’ll certainly hope so.

1. Stephen Coniglio

Top of the list for trade targets this year is the man who came in at No.13 overall in The Roar’s Top 50 AFL players ahead of such luminaries as Isaac Heeney, Andrew Gaff and even Patrick Cripps: Stephen Coniglio.

2019 is GWS’s eighth season in the AFL and it means that for the first time in the club’s history, they are going to have to contend with free agency.

They’ve already been able to stave this off a little by re-signing Nick Haynes, but Coniglio is the big fish on this year’s free agency list.

In as true an indication as any you’ll find that AFL clubs pick their targets well ahead of time, it was revealed as early as September last year that Hawthorn were already hotly pursuing Coniglio’s signature, more than a year in advance.

Conventional wisdom suggests the early bird often gets the worm, but Hawthorn’s position at the top of the trade totem-pole perhaps did slip a little bit last year when they were knocked back by both Tom J Lynch and Dylan Shiel.

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Granted, their response to that was to go out and land big names in Chad Wingard and Tom Scully instead – though rumour has it Scully’s preference was to go to Essendon, not Hawthorn, until Shiel picked the Bombers and left them unable to land both.

West Coast and Fremantle, in Coniglio’s home state, would both love to have him. I suspect the Eagles might have their hands full trying to get deals for Tim Kelly done, but after losing Lachie Neale to Brisbane the Dockers have both an obvious gap to fill and maybe just enough cash in hand to pull it off.

Fremantle CEO Steve Rosich admitted yesterday that the club had an interest, saying it would be ‘negligent’ for the Dockers to not have a conversation with Coniglio’s manager about his future.

Carlton also reportedly will pursue Coniglio but unless they make a significant move up the ladder in season 2019 that seems unlikely to be any more successful than their efforts to attract Dylan Shiel last year or Josh Kelly the year before.

At this early stage if Coniglio does decide to move clubs, my tip is the Hawks will still have the inside track. He is close friends with fellow Western Australian Jaeger O’Meara, and hasn’t shown much of a proclivity for homesickness.

Of course, arguably the most likely scenario is that – like he has done several times before – Coniglio will stay loyal and recommit. If so, it wouldn’t surprise in the least to see him named the next captain of GWS (perhaps in tandem with Josh Kelly) sooner rather than later.

Stephen Coniglio

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Best of the rest

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It was rumoured as early as June last year that Melbourne, Collingwood, St Kilda and North Melbourne were courting Fremantle’s Ed Langdon.

Collingwood would have the chance to play with brother Tom as a drawcard, but both they and the Demons might not have a lot of cap room. St Kilda and North Melbourne are unlikely to have that problem.

Adam Tomlinson has pursued the possibility of returning to Victoria more than once, and now that he’s a free agent, it’s more likely than not he’ll move home at the end of 2019. Carlton and St Kilda ar the clubs who’ve pursued him the most aggressively in the past.

Rhys Mathieson was impressive in JLT1 on Sunday, but Brisbane’s decision to recruit inside mids Lachie Neale and Jarryd Lyons could make it hard for him to bed down a spot.

Darcy Parish hasn’t really come on as Essendon might have hoped and, given how many players they’ve signed over the last two years, you have to wonder if their cap is getting tight.

Parish and Mathieson were famously good mates in the 2015 draft class – wouldn’t it be funny if one way or another they played for the same club this time next year? Don’t rule it out.

Were Braydon Preuss still at North, I’d be putting unrestricted free agent Todd Goldstein forward as one who could be moved on at the end of the year – as things stand, it seems unlikely.