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Buddy brilliant: After one 'bad' year, Sydney's rebuild is already complete

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Expert
29th August, 2019
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5178 Reads

Today my list analysis and offseason preview series continues with the Sydney Swans, who finished outside the top eight for the first time in ten years in 2019, but shouldn’t expect that to become a regular occurence.

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

No other team in the AFL has hit the draft with the absolute level of commitment that the Sydney Swans have over the past five years.

Have they spent more DVI on it than any other club? No, not even close – and that’s what will happen when your side is consistently playing finals.

However they’ve spent an average of 98.5 per cent of their available DVI at the draft every year. The league average over this time is about 72 per cent, for comparison. Only one other team in the league has sent more than 90.

This is perhaps most remarkable because we typically assume clubs who are in the finals mix will be seeking out trades to get a quick hit of impact and take them to the next level.

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To a significant degree Sydney’s hand has been forced – this analysis begins right after they signed Lance Franklin at the end of 2013, and we now know they copped a ridiculous ‘trade ban’ from the AFL after that.

Even after that lifted, though, it’s clear the Swans have felt the best strategy for the longterm health of the club is to keep going back to the well.

Sydney Swans Draft-Trade Analysis 2014-18
Source Spend
Year Organic Trade Draft Trade
2014 1489 483 100.0% 0.0%
2015 2690 16 99.3% 0.7%
2016 1300 1556 100.0% 0.0%
2017 1996 -39 100.0% 0.0%
2018 2802 132 94.5% 5.5%
Total 10277 2148 98.5% 1.5%

Drafting

So, the Swans have spent a lot of their energies on the draft. How is it working out for them? The short version is, very well.

Even though the Swans have been directing virtually all of their resources to the draft over this period of time, they have actually still spent less DVI on the draft than the average club over the last five years, due simply to such strong performance on the ladder over that period of time.

Despite that, they are outperforming the AFL average in just about every respect over the last five years, with really only their 2017 draft – where first-round selection Matt Ling is yet to debut – being a little questionable at this stage.

Is this helped by the fact they’ve had special access to players like Isaac Heeney, Callum Mills and Nick Blakey during this time? You bloody bet it does – the Academy system has made hitting the draft a much more viable strategy for Sydney, giving them access to top-tier talent despite high ladder finishes.

Isaac Heeney

(Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

One can hardly blame the Swans for taking advantage of what has been on offer to them though, and it’d be a mistake to overlook the great decisions they’ve made on players like Tom McCartin, Jordan Dawson, Lewis Melican and Tom Papley over this time period also.

Sydney Swans Draft Analysis 2014-18
Year Drafted Spent Games Votes
2014 8 1972 191 136
2015 8 2687 224 81
2016 9 2856 162 34
2017 8 1957 42 0
2018 9 2772 38 0
Total 42 12244 657 251

Trading

How much can you really say about a team that, for the most part, hasn’t really traded over the past five years? The Swans have brought in just five players from opposition clubs over this period of time – less than half the AFL average, and the least of any team in the league.

Callum Sinclair and Michael Talia joined the club in the 2015 trade period, while they acquired Ryan Clarke and Jackson Thurlow last year, as well as Daniel Menzel via delisted free agency.

Sinclair has so far been the best of them, arriving at the Swans via a win-win trade with West Coast that saw the Eagles gain Lewis Jetta, now a premiership player with both clubs.

Outside of Sinclair it’d be fair to say none of the Swans’ other trade recruits has made a huge impact just yet, but given the low price spent for them, that’s not something to be concerned about.

Sydney Swans Trade Analysis 2014-18
Year Gained Lost Spent Games Votes
2014 0 4 0 0 0
2015 2 2 19 73 59
2016 0 2 0 0 0
2017 0 1 0 0 0
2018 3 3 162 30 0
Total 5 12 181 103 59

List profile

Five years hitting the draft has seen the Swans reshape their list profile from one that was mature to one that’s quite young, and without really needing to bottom out for any significant period of time to do it.

They have an above-average number of youth players on their list, and put a higher-than-average percentage of games into them this season – nearly half of all games were given to players under 23, compared to the league average of 36 per cent.

With this kind of above-average investment you’d expect a good return in terms of AFLCA votes and that is exactly what Sydney got. The league average is about 57 votes, and they well outperformed that with 89.

That’s all the more impressive when you consider that, as we’ve noted with clubs like Gold Coast and Carlton already, it can be really difficult for young players to get this kind of attention when they’re playing in a side near the bottom of the ladder.

Sydney’s cygnets are real standouts.

Sydney Swans list profile
Age Players Games % of total Votes % of total
18-22 26 220 47.62% 89 35.04%
23-27 14 168 36.36% 118 46.46%
28+ 9 74 16.02% 47 18.50%
Total 49 462 100.00% 254 100.00%

Under or over?

Sydney are a rare team that have a significant gap between where they place on the age and experience ladders this year.

They came in at 13th for average experience in the 22 they were putting on the field, but were much younger than that would comparatively suggest, fielding the second-youngest average team this year ahead of only Gold Coast.

What this means is that Sydney’s younger players are more experience than most, due to the sheer amount of games the Swans have been able to pump into them over the last few years.

And, over this period of time, the Swans have been fairly successful, meaning those players have a really good grasp on what it’s like and what’s required to play in a high-performing team.

Sydney had the league’s worst EUR in 2019, utilising an average of just 54.6 per cent of list experience on a weekly basis. Injuries to key veterans was a big part of this, but deliberately investing in youth has an impact also.

Sydney were behind on experience 16 times this season but managed to win about three-in-ten of those games, which is a solidly good effort.

Verdict: Overperformed. Swans fans might feel frustrated with a bottom-four finish, but really, to be near the bottom of the table for average age and EUR but still rack up eight wins and a percentage of 97 is a remarkably good season.

Luke Parker

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/AFL Photos/Getty Images)

Contract watch

Out of contract
Joel Amartey, James Bell, Darcy Cameron, Robbie Fox, Cody Hirst, Zak Jones, Michael Knoll, Jack Maibaum, Hayden McLean, Daniel Menzel, Toby Pink, James Rose, Durak Tucker.

Pre-agents
Josh P Kennedy.

Zak Jones is the one who immediately jumps out from the off-contract list. He seems likely to leave the club for a return home to Victoria this offseason.

Darcy Cameron is also expected to look for a trade – possibly to cross-town rivals GWS, but Carlton and North Melbourne have also been linked to him.

Daniel Menzel was able to work his way into the side towards the end of the year and you’d like to see him rewarded with another deal.

Free agency

Menzel is the only player at the Swans who is technically a free agent this offseason, you’d expect he will either get a new deal at the club or be delisted.

Are the Swans likely to pursue any free agents? It’s potentially an appealing path to go down, because they would have the option of adding a mature player to their list without really compromising their ability to go to the draft.

If they do lose Darcy Cameron then pursuing a ruckman via free agency might be a good call. Todd Goldstein is the best one on the market, but there are some options of reasonable quality beyond that. Sam Jacobs could be a temporary solution, while Tom Nicholls feels like a classic Sydney recycle.

Probably the other one to consider, especially if they happen to lose Tom Papley to a trade, would be Jamie Elliott. He could be either a nice replacement for Papley in their forward line, or even play alongside their existing forwards.

The one ‘free agent’ Sydney have been actively linked to so far is Harley Bennell, who will become a delisted free agent once clubs do their first list lodgement at the end of the trade period, having already agreed to part ways with the Swans.

I really like this by the Swans if they decide to go down this path. Bennell is one of the best talents in the AFL but never managed to get a clear injury run while at Fremantle, and if they feel there’s even a ten per cent chance he can achieve that with them, it’s worth rolling the dice.

As a delisted free agent he’d cost nothing in terms of DVI and would probably be on the minimum AFL contract. Bennell has had some highly publicised incidents of bad off-field behaviour in the past, but by all reports has become a real professional. Sydney’s strong culture will only help to reinforce that.

Trade period

The Swans are likely to be more involved in this year’s trade period than they have been for a while, although to just what degree that becomes the case remains unclear at this stage.

Let’s start with the players who may leave the club – Tom Papley is probably the biggest name. After kicking 37 goals in a genuine breakout year, it’s understood that, while not insisting on a trade, he is interested in returning to Victoria if a deal can be struck.

Tom Papley Sydney Swans AFL Finals 2016

(AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

Carlton and North Melbourne have both been reported to be interested in him, but their aspirations hit a roadblock yesterday when it was revealed that Papley had hit a trigger in his contract this year which automatically extended him from the end of 2020 to the end of 2023.

This means the Swans can hold him to his deal for multiple years if they wish to, and, being happy at the club, it’s believed Papley would not object to that happening if there isn’t a team who can satisfy Sydney in a trade.

Sydney’s position on the deal currently is that they have no interest whatsoever in finding a deal for Papley to return to Victoria – but, the trade period is still five weeks away from even starting, let alone ending, and you’d be naive not to think a lot could change in that time.

If it becomes a matter of satisying the Swans, then the question is just what are Carlton or North willing to give up. Both have high draft picks this year, but are they willing to put them on the table?

Carlton have pick 8, via Adelaide, and are reportedly willing to swap that for Papley. North could trump that with an offer of pick 7, but it’s not clear yet whether they’d be able to pay that much.

The other consideration however should be future picks. The Swans don’t have anything significant in the way of academy prospects in this year’s draft, but in 2020 they will be looking to points with which to match bids for highly-rated prospects Errol Gulden and Braeden Campbell.

With that in mind, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Carlton or North put up a future 2020 selection as something that might be more palatable for the Swans – they’d already be aware there’s a potential headache on the horizon there, and it’s something that could tempt them to the table.

Zak Jones looks certain to leave as he’s out of contract and that leaves the Swans with no real option but to trade him. St Kilda are keen on him and I’d expect the deal to get done for the Saints’ 2020 second-round draft pick.

Darcy Cameron, as mentioned, is the other one who likely departs. Depending on how open he is to going where the Swans can get the best deal of him, he might be a good chip for the Swans to make Carlton or North pay big in a Papley trade. Alternatively, GWS’ 2020 third-round pick would be fine.

What about players coming in? One that Sydney have been linked to both in the past and now is Mason Wood, who seems certain to leave North Melbourne this offseason despite being contracted for 2020.

This, again, is something that might factor into a potential Papley trade. If North are willing to offer up say Wood, and their 2020 second and third round picks, that might be a deal that both parties feel is a win for them.

Alternatively, Sydney do have picks 23 and 40 in this year’s draft after the first round. Some negotiation around them would probably get Wood to them if it doesn’t wind up being part of a Papley deal.

A far bigger fish to land than Mason Wood however would be Joe Daniher, who despite the protestations of Daniher and Essendon has still been heavily linked to the Swans after catching up with good mate and Sydney CEO Tom Harley while visiting Sydney earlier this year.

Joe Daniher

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos)

Although this news came as something of a curveball, it doesn’t surprise me at all that the Swans would have an interest in Daniher. They’ve shown a regular strategy of looking to recruit big-name key forwards from rival clubs.

Why? As a former Sydney premiership player in Ted Richards would put it, “defenders win premierships, forwards sell memberships.” I’ll leave it to you to decide whether you agree with the first half of that, but the second half is absolutely true.

The Swans know they need to have a drawcard of some kind to keep people coming through the door at the SCG and have always recruited with this in mind, landing the likes of Tony Lockett, Barry Hall and most recently of course Lance Franklin.

However they are aware that the Franklin era is entering it’s declining years and both for the sake of the team’s on-field performance but also for being able to put a marketable face on the club, it’s time to target another big fish.

Daniher is a difficult one of course because his last two years have been ruined by injury. Before that he was All Australian, so there’s no doubt over his talent, but clubs are bound to be concerned about his ability to return to that level.

I’d say someone of Daniher’s talent is worth a top five pick in the draft, and someone of his injury issues is probably worth a second-rounder. That averages out to a pick somewhere in the early teens, but I doubt Essendon will see it that way, and Sydney may be reluctant to put pick 4 on the table.

My tip? I suspect that, if rumour of Sydney’s interest in Daniher really is true – and it certainly is a persistent rumour, if not a verifiably accurate one – then this was probably just laying the groundwork to have a serious crack at him as a free agent next year.

Sydney know they’d probably be his first choice if he does want to leave Essendon, and there’s no time pressure on them right now, so there’s really no reason for them to pay big in a deal this year when they could sign him for free at the end of 2020.

In terms of other players they could look at, Charlie Constable is one I really like for them. He showed great aptitude at Geelong earlier in the year but wasn’t able to hold his spot, I think he’d thrive at the Swans being an understudy and eventual successor to Josh Kennedy.

Blake Acres and Aiden Bonar are other talented players who haven’t shown their best traits at AFL level yet that I think the Swans could consider rolling the dice on. They could use a tall back and could have the conversation with Darcy Moore again, or consider someone like Ben McKay who would come cheaply.

Hugh Greenwood, Josh Jenkins and Alex Keath are all players I could see fitting well into the Sydney team, however they’re all a bit older and it’s questionable whether that’s really a good longterm fit for a team that’s invested so much in the draft.

If they really wanted to do something audacious then they could consider going to Melbourne with pick 4 and putting it on the table for one of their excess of inside midfielders. The Dees would have to consider an offer like that and someone like Angus Brayshaw or Christian Petracca could have a huge impact at Sydney.

Draft

Picks inside 30: 4, 23.

The academy system has enabled the Swans to take some very ‘high’ draft picks over the last few years, but in 2019 for the first time in a while they’ll have a top-five selection organically, from the open pool.

Pick 4 will be too late to snag one of the absolute top-tier talents like Matt Rowell or Noah Anderson, and the draft becomes more even after that meaning Sydney will have their pick from a variety of different player types.

They’ve shown a clear desire to find someone who can play off halfback over the past two years – drafting Matt Ling, and trading for Jackson Thurlow – without really having any great degree of success just yet.

If they’d like to take a blue-chip stock in that area of the ground this time then Hayden Young, or if he’s already gone Lachie Ash, would both be great recruits for the club.

Hayden Young

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

Caleb Serong could quite possibly be on the board at their pick and he’s one who could offer a bit of midfield grunt but is also dangerous around goals.

If they’d like to look more at a big-bodied midfielder, they could do something a little cheeky and put a bid on GWS academy prospect Tom Green. The Giants would happily match that, but then the Swans could also look at someone like Brodie Kemp to play this role.

Probably the other one to really jump out is Fisher McAsey. It’d be a little surprising to see him picked this early, but he’s the best tall in the draft and the Swans may feel like getting in a blue-chip key defender is the right path for them to go down.

Luke Jackson, Will Gould, Sam De Koning, Cam Taheny and Elijah Taylor are all names I like for them around the pick 23 mark who could still be there. Some of those will definitely be gone by then – Jackson and Gould being the most likely to be already off the table – but all are at least some chance to slip that far.

What I said last year

“There’s a relatively minor gap in Sydney’s list between their veteran talent that made up the core of their 2012 premiership talent, and some very talented younger players coming through.

“It wouldn’t usually be big enough to be a problem, but this gap is set to be widened by the impending departures of Dan Hannebery and to a lesser degree Gary Rohan.

“Unless the Swans throw us a curveball by unexpectedly landing a big fish to fill this gap – which is an entirely plausible scenario given what canny operators they tend to be – I’d suggest they’re probably going to take a step backwards on the ladder in 2019.

“However that generation of young players coming through is just about as good as any in the league… Sydney may well miss finals in 2019, in fact my very early tip would be that they do. But they won’t be down for long.”

Outlook

Sydney probably weren’t quite as audaciously creative last year as I thought they might be, but one of the factors we haven’t really considered at any point in this analysis so far is what their salary cap looks like.

Logically, a team who haven’t paid big for a trade recruit in five years and have moved on what would be big-money contracts for players like Tom Mitchell and Dan Hannebery (and to a lesser degree Gary Rohan) in that time should have plenty of moolah to throw around.

However, we do know that they’ve had a lot of money tied up in needing to pay Kurt Tippett and Lance Franklin, and while Tippett is now officially off the books, Franklin still has three years left of what was reported to be a heavily back-ended contract.

Sydney’s draft-dedicated strategy over the past five years has been a thing of beauty. It’s exactly the kind of advice I would have given a club in their position and they’ve executed it about as perfectly as they possibly could.

In reality, a confluence of factors – being Franklin’s big contract, the trade ban that came with it, and their unique special access to top-tier talent through their academy – is probably what has driven them to go down than path, and it has worked out splendidly.

Despite this being the first time they’ve missed finals in a decade of football, they somehow already have an excellent generation of young talent that has been given plenty of experience at AFL level and is ready to springboard them back up the ladder.

The only question really is to what degree Buddy impacts both their on-field performance and their off-field strategy over the remaining three years of his contract.

Can they afford now to go target a big trade deal? I suspect the answer right now is probably yes, and when Franklin retires that will definitely be the case. Expect them to pivot towards making an audacious trade move at some point between now and then, with Joe Daniher at this early stage appearing the most likely target.

But with regards to those last three years of Lance Franklin, can the great man come back and play full seasons or close to? He recently said he reckons he is fully capable of getting his body right and playing out his contract – watch out if he does.

Franklin and Papley

Lance Franklin and his son, Tom Papley (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

I don’t expect them to make finals next year at this stage, or even necessarily improve on the field, given they’ve sent off another four veterans into retirement this offseason. That said, if Bud comes back and kicks 50 or 60 goals in 2020 there’s no reason why they couldn’t sneak in.

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