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Impatient Carlton risk derailing a great rebuild

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28th August, 2019
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Today my list analysis and offseason preview series continues with the club who finished 16th on the ladder this year, the always controversial Carlton Blues.

Before we get started, a reminder that this is one in a series of what will be many articles with some in-depth anaylsis into clubs’ list management. Some of it may be confusing if you’re reading this as a one-off.

The mechanisms I’m using to analyse clubs were detailed more clearly in my article on the Gold Coast Suns, and I recommend reading that if you’re confused by anything you find here.

Also, while I’ve got you, did you know that here on The Roar we have two awesome pages related to the offseason: one of them has all the latest AFL Trade Rumours for more than 50 AFL players, and the other is a rolling AFL Phantom Draft which is updated every week. Very cool.

Five-year strategy

Carlton’s numbers over the past five years detail the significant investment that list manager Stephen Silvagni has put into the draft since arriving at the club four years ago.

In 2014 the Blues spent an above-average amount of their DVI on trades – in this case, the ill-fated Kristian Jaksch and Mark Whiley deal – before a stunning pivot from Silvagni in 2015 to begin regenerating through the draft.

In 2015 the Blues achieved a huge bounty of DVI through finishing on the bottom of the ladder and trading out a number of valuable players, and spent almost the entirety of this value at the draft.

In the time since they’ve continued to hit the draft while also making a regular effort to attract players from rival clubs.

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In the most recent offseason, 2018, you can see their strategy begin to skew this way as they brokered deals for both Mitch McGovern and Will Setterfield.

Carlton Blues Draft-Trade Analysis 2014-18
Source Spend
Year Organic Trade Draft Trade
2014 2775 135 64.7% 35.3%
2015 4625 2237 97.8% 2.2%
2016 2995 1137 76.3% 23.7%
2017 2653 2618 81.5% 18.5%
2018 7534 -675 59.3% 40.7%
Total 20582 5452 77.2% 22.8%

Drafting

The Blues are one just three AFL teams to have put more than 20,000 points worth of DVI into the draft over the past five years, with Gold Coast and GWS the only sides ahead of them by that measure.

They’ve acquired 44 players during that time, effectively replacing the entire list. This is five more than the league average over that period of time and makes it clear what the primary focus of Carlton’s list strategy has been.

That being the case, it’s a little surprising that the players Carlton have drafted in this time only come in at 10th for AFL games played and 12th for AFLCA votes awarded so far in their careers.

Lagging behind in AFLCA votes is understandable given the Blues have generally been uncompetitive across this stretch of time and it can be difficult to get these in a struggling side.

However, you’d expect a club that has drafted such a large number of players and spent more currency than most to do so to be pumping more games into than them most, rather than be mid-table for this.

For example when it comes to the 2015 draft, where Carlton were most heavily invested, the average return so far for the amount of DVI they spent here would be 417 AFL Games and 142 AFLCA votes. Their 2015 draftees have played 254 games for 67 votes, suggesting so far they’re not getting bang for buck.

Of course, that was a year where they largely focused on taller players – Jacob Weitering, Harry McKay, Charlie Curnow. “Talls take longer to develop” goes the old refrain, so it’s arguably not a surprise that the new Blues from this draft would be behind the pace right now. They may well catch up.

Charlie Curnow

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

The years that have followed have seen Carlton more or less meet the expected return for their draft investment. The 2017 draftees haven’t generated any AFLCA votes yet, which is unfortunate, but Sam Walsh’s prolific efforts in 2019 have balanced that out.

Carlton Blues Draft Analysis 2014-18
Year Drafted Spent Games Votes
2014 9 1883 51 0
2015 7 6711 254 67
2016 10 3153 174 28
2017 8 4297 103 0
2018 10 4067 50 30
Total 44 20111 632 125

Trading

Carlton’s list turnover has been so dramatic as to be impossible to achieve through the draft alone. The average club has traded in 11.5 players over the last five years, Carlton have brought in double that, and more than any other team in the league.

In 2015 they famously loaded up on GWS’ NEAFL regulars, as well as Sam Kerridge from Adelaide, and the numbers would – perhaps surprisingly, given only two of these players remain at the club – suggest that this was an enormous success.

The Blues spent just 151 DVI points, the equivalent of pick 59, to acquire these players. Yet they’ve played 276 AFL games for the club and generated 28 AFLCA votes. The expected return for this investment to date would’ve been 11 games and 7 votes.

While none beyond Lachie Plowman and Andrew Phillips will make a lasting contribution to the club, that’s arguably beside the point. The Blues needed warm bodies cheaply to fill gaps in the team, and got abundant return for what they spent.

In the past three years they’ve had more of a focus on bringing in higher-talent players via trade. Caleb Marchbank, Jarrod Pickett, Matthew Kennedy and Will Setterfield have all arrived at the club during this time – all of them former first-round picks, three being in the top ten. They also traded for Mitch McGovern last year.

The average return suggests Carlton should expect 200 AFL Games and 114 AFLCA votes from this group by now. They’ve gotten 187 games, but just 26 votes.

That does leave some question as to the quality of talent the Blues have acquired over this period. However, these numbers are mitigated by the fact that a) Carlton have primarily traded for young players, who are less likely to make a big impact right away, and b) the Blues have been a poorer side, making it harder to get votes.

It appears too late for Pickett, but the other four could all go on to have significant careers at the club.

Carlton Blues Trade Analysis 2014-18
Year Gained Lost Spent Games Votes
2014 4 3 1027 81 27
2015 7 4 151 276 28
2016 4 1 979 68 9
2017 4 1 974 62 1
2018 4 0 2792 57 16
Total 23 9 5923 544 81

List profile

It’ll come as no surprise that a club which has hit the draft as hard as Carlton has a younger list than most. They’ve got 30 players under 23 on their list – seven more than the league average, and the most of any club.

The league average expectation is to get 59 AFLCA votes from this group of players, and Carlton have 81 – the fourth most of any club, behind the Western Bulldogs, GWS, and Sydney. The kids are alright.

With Ed Curnow, Marc Murphy, Kade Simpson, Dale Thomas and Matthew Kreuzer the club actually has a pretty decent veteran group, especially for one so young.

But the prime age group is severely lacking, reflecting an era of sparse drafting success. The Blues have five less prime-age players than the average list and 70 less AFLCA votes from this group, take out Patrick Cripps and they’d have almost none.

Carlton Blues list profile
Age Players Games % of total Votes % of total
18-22 30 229 49.57% 81 31.64%
23-27 11 123 26.62% 112 43.75%
28+ 7 110 23.81% 63 24.61%
Total 48 462 100.00% 256 100.00%

Under or over?

Carlton were 15th for average experience and 14th for average games played this year, reflecting a list that has a heavy skew towards youth.

They were the more experienced side than their opponents in nine games this year, but on five of these occasions, the gap was marginal. When it wasn’t marginal, Carlton won three of four matches, which is on par with expectation.

They struggled to win games when they were less experienced than their opponents, with just two wins from 12 occasions – arguably their best two wins of the season, against Brisbane and Adelaide.

The Blues finished sixth in the league for EUR, using about 70 per cent of their list experience each week. Obviously, they don’t have nearly as much of it to draw on as some other clubs.

Verdict: About even. The Blues finished roughly on par with where the age and experience ladder suggests they should. A real season of two halves – they probably underperformed early, and overperformed late.

David Teague

(Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Contract watch

Out of contract
Matthew Cottrell, Josh Deluca, Jarrod Garlett, Patrick Kerr, Kym LeBois, Matthew Lobbe, Andrew Phillips, Angus Schumacher, Kade Simpson.

Pre-agents
Ed Curnow, Marc Murphy, Matthew Kreuzer.

Kade Simpson is the most important player on the out of contract list but by all reports should finalise a deal with the Blues to play in 2020 soon.

You’d want to keep at least one of Andrew Phillips or Matthew Lobbe on the list for ruck depth, presumably Phillips, possibly both.

Next year looms as a big one in terms of trying to manage the departure of veterans over time. It’ll probably be Kade Simpson’s last year and might be time to move on Kreuzer as well, so you’d hope Curnow and Murphy are keen to continue.

Free agency

Simpson and Thomas are free agents at Carlton this year, as is Josh Deluca. Levi Casboult was on this list also but has reportedly achieved a trigger for season 2020.

You’d expect in that case that, other than Thomas maybe finding a new home elsewhere, there won’t be any players leaving the Blues via free agency this offseason, unless perhaps something unexpected emerges with Casboult.

The big news instead for Carlton is their No.1 target this offseason, Stephen Coniglio, last night signed a seven-year deal to remain with the GWS Giants.

Bummer. Coniglio would have been a transformative recruit for Carlton. He’s a top-ten player in the comp and if they got him I’d have argued for them making finals in 2020.

Most importantly, because he was a free agent and because they had a bigger financial offer than GWS, the Blues would have gotten him without giving up a draft pick, which is a genuine heist.

This would have meant paying him a motzah but the Blues could have banked so much of that in the early years of a very front-ended contracted that it wouldn’t have restricted their chance of landing players later on.

Stephen Coniglio

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Ah well. It was not to be. As a North Melbourne fan, I find the situation relatable! How often does a top-ten player in the league move from a club playing finals to one in the bottom four? Not very.

If you’re looking for a silver lining it’s that Coniglio’s arrival probably would’ve made it difficult to play both Matt Kennedy and Will Setterfield – or even just one of them – and now they both should have a good opportunity to be regulars in the side.

Could Carlton turn their attention to a different free agent? It’s not the direction they’re reportedly likely to go in, but there is an argument for it.

From my perspective, one of Carlton’s biggest needs is in the ruck – both a senior option who can be relied upon to be fit (unlike Kreuzer), and a quality developing up-and-comer.

For the former, there’s some good options in this year’s free agent pool. Todd Goldstein is the obvious one – he’s had an underrated year and would make a big impact if added to Carlton’s midfield.

Other ideas would be to look at bringing Sam Jacobs back to the club, likely just for a year or two, or to pick up Tom Nicholls from Gold Coast. Nicholls wouldn’t become Carlton’s No.1, but is worth rolling the dice on as mature depth.

Justin Westhoff is another who might be worth considering. He doesn’t play ruck full time but is a valuable player roaming around the ground and could help Carlton maintain a strong veteran presence in the team.

Two others Carlton have been linked to at times are Adam Tomlinson and Brandon Ellis. While both would probably make the best 22 for the Blues and come cheaply, I’d suggest they’re ones to avoid – not because they’re poor players, but I don’t think they move the needle at Carlton.

Tomlinson, in particular, fills a position where Carlton have a lot of young depth.

Trade period

It’s abdundantly clear that Carlton want to get a small forward or two this trade period – over the course of the year they’ve been linked to Jack Martin, Tom Papley, Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, Sam Gray, and even former player Eddie Betts.

Jack Martin

(AAP Image/Joe Castro)

Right now, all the talk is that Martin and Papley are their two preferred options if they can land them. And, now that they’ve missed on Stephen Coniglio, they do perhaps have room to up their financial offer to both players, if they want to.

Neither is a certainty just yet.

Martin is also being pursued by the Western Bulldogs who, despite the Blues’ late-season form, are probably a more attractive destination – but likely to have less cash on offer.

Papley is also being targetted by North Melbourne, who may have an edge in the form of Rhyce Shaw, who has worked with Papley before.

I’d say there’s a strong chance Carlton get at least one of them or quite possibly both. If they miss on at least one, expect them to pick up Sam Gray instead. Despite the links, I’d be surprised if they wound up acquiring McDonald-Tipungwuti or Betts.

The thorny issue with trades, unlike free agency, is that you have to pay something for them – and personally, this is where I become a little sceptical of the merit of recruiting Martin and Papley.

Both Gold Coast and Sydney would be looking for a pick around the early-to-mid teens in return. Carlton currently own pick 8 via the Liam Stocker trade (which, yes, I know you’ve been waiting for it – they won), but don’t have another pick after that till 39.

I’d say a trade strategy to land both looks something like 8 and 39 to Gold Coast for Jack Martin and Brisbane’s first pick, which is currently pikc 17, then look to give that and maybe a future third-round pick to Sydney for Papley. The Swans have some academy prospects next year so that might get it over the line.

That would basically wipe Carlton out of this draft to get those two players, and I’m not sure it’s the right call – but let’s discuss that more later.

Tom Papley Sydney Swans AFL Finals 2016

(AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

The other players Carlton have been linked to are Brad Hill and Darcy Cameron.

Hill would probably be a good fit for Carlton, but it’s debatable whether at his age he’s a good fit for their list profile.

I’d say probably not, and that he’d likely cost more than he’s worth to them. It seems more likely that he’ll go to St Kilda, so this probably isn’t one to worry about.

Cameron would be a good acquisition, fitting into my belief that the Blues need a quality developing ruck. He could probably come to the club for a lateish future pick going to Sydney, or in a Papley deal, and might be Carlton’s next No.1 ruckman.

At this stage Cameron appears more likely to join GWS, but ruckman are tricky to predict and if the Giants as expected lure Sam Jacobs to the club, then perhaps Carlton could put it to Cameron that he’s more likely to get games from them next year than he is GWS.

Are there any other players who Carlton should be looking at on the market? Aiden Bonar, Nick Robertson and Harley Bennell are the only other names that jump out to me as being of interest, but I’d be lukewarm on them at best for Carlton.

Ben McKay has obvious romantic appeal, but probably isn’t a good fit.

Draft

Picks inside 30: 8.

It seems unlikely at this stage that Carlton will take pick 8 to the draft. They have flagged from a while out that they intend to trade it for a mature player, and even if they miss on both Jack Martin and Tom Papley they may wind up making an eleventh-hour bid for someone like Brad Hill instead.

Hypothetically though, let’s pretend they go back to the draft. What could they do with this pick?

There’s a few players around the mark who jump out as good options.

Lachie Ash is an exciting half-back with plenty of speed who could be a good fit for Carlton. After two years on the bench there have to be doubts about Sam Docherty’s longevity in the game, and Ash is the kind of player who could work alongside him or replace him if needed.

Brodie Kemp is a really talented and versatile prospect who could be available around this mark. He’s got a big frame – which is rare in this draft – and could wind up playing in the midfield or the forward line, or both, and be a real point of difference wherever he lands.

Sam Flanders at 182cm isn’t necessarily a genuine small forward like what Carlton are looking for, but could play that kind of role or be more on a half-forward flank. Potentially a real weapon for the Blues. Alternatively, Dylan Stephens would be a good fit for them on the wing.

If they want a genuine small forward then Cody Weightman is their man. This is probably too early to pick him but they could look to downgrade pick 8 a little further down the order and get back a later pick or a future pick in return.

However for mine I’d say the number one option for them at this pick would be WA ruckman Luke Jackson. He dominated at the under-18 champs and looks like probably the best under-18 ruckman to come through since Brodie Grundy.

Luke Jackson

(Photo by Michael Dodge/AFL Photos via Getty Images )

The Blues have drafted plenty of young talent in recent years and for mine the only position on the list that really stands out as a gap is ruck – yes, they’ve got Tom De Koning, but he’s no guarantee to make the grade for them.

Jackson at 198cm is a little undersized for a ruckman, but plays in a way that will mean that probably isn’t too much of a problem. Add him to the list and it really ties Carlton’s future midfield together.

Maybe you feel differently on which player is Carlton’s best fit at this pick – the point is, there’s a lot of options, and they have plenty of appeal.

If the Blues want a small forward with one of their picks later in the draft there’ll be some options. Ned Cahill could be a really good option for them at pick 39 if they still hold it going into the draft.

What I said last year

“Continue to practice the good habits developed over the last three years, and eventually the wheel will turn.

“What’s working in Carlton’s favour is that despite what external critics might say, they’ve got time up their sleeves. They have a patient fan base, and their important young players have largely all committed to the club longterm…

“Carlton aren’t going to become a finals-quality side in the blink of an eye, but if they continue to invest in young talent while doing what they can to build a culture where that talent is challenged and flourishes, they’ll eventually make their way back up the table.”

Outlook

My perspective now is the same as it was a year before, the only difference is that we’re a year closer.

Carlton’s drafting and trading under Stephen Silvagni has, broadly speaking, been pretty good. Silvagni took a slow-burn approach that was always going to take a while to pay off, but I don’t see any reason to worry that it won’t eventually do just that.

The return on investment for them in terms of drafting and trading is about on par – a little below on raw numbers, but probably makes the grade when you consider the specific challenges this club in particular has faced.

If you combine that with the fact Carlton had a proven ability to win when they were the more experienced team by a significant margin this year, and it gives you confidence that when the Blues’ list matures to the point where that happens more often, they’ll win plenty of games.

Like massage-oil soaked towels in the Richmond pool area, if you pile up enough young talent in one place, eventually it will burst into flames.

It’s important to understand that when Silvagni arrived at the club the playing list was pretty barren in terms of youth and prime-age players, and this became even more the case when Silvagni opted to trade out what valuable players did exist in order to prioritise the draft.

That was the right call for Carlton’s longterm future and if you gave me the option of doing it ten times, I would do it ten times again.

Stephen Silvagni

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

However, it’s a course of action that meant it was always going to take a while for Carlton to begin moving back up the ladder. Their drafting has been solidly good, but not so exceptional as to buck the laws of list management.

Despite this, it’s my perception that the Blues have become a bit impatient for that rise up the ladder to happen. This was seen in the decision to axe Brendon Bolton halfway through the season, after he achieved just one win in the early part of the year.

David Teague was able to net Carlton six more wins for the year which is exactly what the Blues want, and no one is going to say that winning is bad. However, he did it primarily by putting Carlton’s senior veterans back into more prominent roles in the team.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Bolton’s strategy of making the kids play the most important roles was clearly not working, and now Carlton’s youth can get the chance to develop under a bit less scrutiny and with a bit more positive momentum.

But, that being the case, I would argue it’s a mistake to believe Carlton’s young list is ready to ‘pop’ in the kind of way the Brisbane’s has in 2019. However, I get the impression that many Carlton fans, and probably those in power at the club, feel differently.

If the Blues were landing Coniglio as their equivalent to Brisbane bringing in Lachie Neale, then there’d be a case to feel differently. But they’re not, and while I feel like Jack Martin and Tom Papley coming in would improve the team next year, I’m sceptical that they would do so enough to make it worthwhile.

Carlton need a small forward? There are small forwards in the draft, and the Blues have time enough on their hands to go down that route instead. The draft is historically a better investment than trading, the only reason to trade is if you need impact now. Carlton want it, but they don’t need it.

Selling themselves out of one draft won’t derail Carlton’s rebuild, but trading is like a drug. You experience the euphoria of a quick sugar hit, maybe go so far as to make finals or come within tasting distance of them, and you keep going back for more.

If the Blues go down that path, and wind up putting themselves out of multiple drafts in a row, then five years into the future they’ll be looking for natural improvement to come for the kids they should’ve been drafting right now, and find it’s not there – and we’ll be right back where we started.

Be smart. Be like Han Solo, and know when is the right time to punch the throttle. It’s not just yet.

Thanks to Stats Insider, the AFL Coaches Association, and Draftguru for providing data and tools to make the analysis in this article possible.