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Crows in crisis need a shake-up, not a fire sale

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2nd September, 2019
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Today my list analysis and offseason preview series continues with the Adelaide Crows, a team who I tipped for the flag this year (d’oh!) but, like most of my pre-season premiership tips, went on to miss finals entirely.

For those who used the pre-finals bye weekend to get out and do something, you might not know that on Saturday and Sunday I anaylsed St Kilda and North Melbourne repsectively. Be sure to check both pieces out.

Five-year strategy

The Crows have something of a strange set of numbers in the past five years, regularly flipping back and forth between focusing on the draft or paying heavy prices in trades.

To some degree this has been fed by the Crows’ tendency to lose quality players to rival clubs. They’ve sourced the fifth-most DVI from trading players out of the club over the last five years, behind GWS, Gold Coast, Melbourne and Brisbane.

Their 2015 spending spree in the trade period – bringing in Paul Seedsman, Troy Menzel, Curtly Hampton and Dean Gore – was a direct response to losing Patrick Dangerfield in the same trade period. They were still able to take two first-round picks to the draft that year.

Adelaide’s other big trade spend over that period of time was in 2017, coughing up two first-round picks to bring Bryce Gibbs back to South Australia in the hopes he could take them from runners-up to premiers.

Adelaide’s overall balance between draft and trade during this period is about on-par with the AFL average, but has certainly been less of a smooth ride than is the case for other clubs.

Adelaide Crows Draft-Trade Analysis 2014-18
Source Spend
Year Organic Trade Draft Trade
2014 2317 0 96.3% 3.7%
2015 2326 1873 56.1% 43.9%
2016 1438 418 100.0% 0.0%
2017 1126 2367 48.6% 51.4%
2018 1736 1589 98.2% 1.8%
Total 8943 6247 75.1% 24.9%

Drafting

Despite finishing in finals for three of the years counted, and being close to the mark in the other two, Adelaide have been able to place a reasonably strong investment into the draft over this period of time – below average, but not by too much.

This is of course due in no small part to the fact they have had currency coming in via the departure of senior players – even one of their 2014 draftees, Jake Lever, is an example of this. While the club would’ve like him to stay, they got more in return for him leaving than they paid to get ahold of him.

Adelaide’s top three picks from that draft are all at other clubs now, with Harrison Wigg and Mitch McGovern the others. Reilly O’Brien is the only player remaining on the list from that year but looks set to enjoy a long career at the Crows.

Reilly O'Brien

(Photo by Morne de Klerk/Getty Images)

The 2015 (Wayne Milera, Tom Doedee, Hugh Greenwood and Alex Keath) and 2017 (Darcy Fogarty, Lachie Murphy) drafts are both looking like reasonable returns as it currently stands, where the Crows are outperforming the expected return for their level of investment.

The 2016 draft featuring Jordan Galllucci, Myles Poholke and Elliot Himmelberg is yet to produce a best-22 player, and the same could be said of the 2018 draft from which only Chayce Jones has so far debuted, but with the latter in particular it is too early to make a judgment.

Overall the Crows’ drafting over this period has been solidly good, marred only by the fact they’ve been unable to keep some of the better players taken at the club.

Adelaide Crows Draft Analysis 2014-18
Year Drafted Spent Games Votes
2014 7 2231 124 67
2015 6 2354 165 71
2016 7 1856 47 1
2017 6 1697 73 12
2018 8 3266 8 0
Total 34 11404 417 151

Trading

The Crows have only twice been noticeably active participants in the trade period over the last five years, and on both occasions they’ve done so on what could be arguably called a ‘reactionary’ basis.

In 2015 for example their decision to bring in a quartet of players from other clubs felt like a response to Patrick Dangerfield’s exit from the club, seeking to replace mature talent going out with mature talent coming in.

Then, trading for Bryce Gibbs in 2017 was clearly motivated by that year’s heart-breaking grand final failure, as well as Jake Lever and Charlie Cameron’s departures. The Crows appeared to feel they needed Gibbs to stay in the premiership hunt.

Both of these moves have produced only frustrating results so far.

An investment of the size they made in the 2015 trade period so far would be expected to generate 134 AFL games and 86 AFLCA votes, but three of the four players the Crows brought in have been delisted and they’ve achieved less than half that.

The Gibbs deal is underperforming as well. He was dropped three times during season 2019, and has only produced half as many AFLCA votes so far as an investment of the size made by the Crows would suggest he should.

Bryce Gibbs

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

The overall numbers suggest the Crows’ trading has been pretty poor over the last five years. Paul Seedsman, with 52 games since arriving at the club, is probably the only player they’ve brought in who could so far be called a success.

Adelaide Crows Trade Analysis 2014-18
Year Gained Lost Spent Games Votes
2014 2 0 86 44 3
2015 4 3 1845 68 29
2016 0 2 0 0 0
2017 2 3 1796 39 22
2018 1 1 59 2 0
Total 9 9 3786 153 54

List profile

With a list that’s been aiming to contend the premiership over the past few years, it’s no surprise to see that Adelaide’s profile is skewed more to players who are in their prime, or a bit older than that.

They have only 15 players on their list aged 18-22, which is eight less than the AFL average. More worryingly, they invested only 15 per cent of game time into youth this year.

Instead the bulk of their games have gone into the older players on their list. Both the prime and veteran age playing groups met the AFL average for AFLCA votes, but given how Adelaide’s selection has skewed towards them this year you’d probably expect a bit more.

This isn’t a sustainable practice. Unless they add more youth to the list and invest more game time into those players, when the Crows’ older players decline – if that isn’t happening already – they’ll find they have little in the way of potential replacements available.

Adelaide Crows list profile
Age Players Games % of total Votes % of total
18-22 20 123 26.62% 46 15.49%
23-27 15 177 38.31% 158 53.20%
28+ 12 162 35.06% 93 31.31%

Under or over?

Adelaide fielded the second-oldest team on average in the competition this year, younger only than Hawthorn. This wasn’t quite reflected in their experience profile, where they were the fifth most experienced. The skew is probably due to older-but-inexperienced players like Alex Keath and Hugh Greenwood.

Adelaide were more experienced than their opposition 18 times from 22 matches this season, and won ten of those. That is below the league average, albeit not by a huge margin – what’s more worrying is that they couldn’t get a win on any of the four occasions they were the less experienced side.

Overall the numbers suggest Adelaide could only be reasonably expected to win if they had a significant experience advantage over their opponents, or, to put it another way, when they were playing the genuine battlers of the competition.

They had an EUR of 73.1 per cent across the length of the season, the fifth-best in the league, and six points above the league average, suggesting that they don’t have much room to blame injury or other misfortune for poor results.

Verdict: Underperformed. Given the age and experience profile of the side they were putting on the field each week, Adelaide simply weren’t very good.

Don Pyke

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

Contract watch

Out of contract
Cam Ellis-Yolmen, Hugh Greenwood, Paul Hunter, Sam Jacobs, Alex Keath, Riley Knight, David Mackay, Kieran Strachan.

Pre-agents
Brad Crouch, Kyle Hartigan, Luke Brown, Rory Atkins.

There’s more than a few names of interest both in terms of players who are still out of contract at the club this year, and those who’ll have a free agency option next.

Hugh Greenwood, Alex Keath and Sam Jacobs are all players who have been linked to moves away from the club – and they’re just the uncontracted ones to be mentioned in that discussion.

Brad Crouch is also someone who has been talked about during the season. If Adelaide feel he’s likely to leave the club at the end of next year, now might be the time to seek the best value for him in a trade.

Free agency

Sam Jacobs is Adelaide’s most noteworthy free agent this year and after seemingly losing his No.1 ruck position to Reilly O’Brien during the year, appears unlikely to be at the club in 2020.

Jacobs is still a solidly good mature ruckman, with probably at least one or two years of reasonable footy left at the level, but O’Brien has gone past him and appears to be Adelaide’s long term option.

Ideally Adelaide should look to retain Jacobs all the same, but do so on a basis where he understands he’ll be playing in the SANFL and only get a call up if O’Brien goes down with injury.

That would allow the Crows to have a solid backup option, but also provide O’Brien with someone who is experienced and knows the craft to ruck against at training.

If Jacobs can get the No.1 role elsewhere though you’d expect he’ll leave, and as an unrestricted free agent there won’t be anything Adelaide can do about that, not that you would think they’d even be likely to.

By all reports the most likely result is that Jacobs will sign with the GWS Giants for season 2020 and likely become their first-choice option, as Dawson Simpson has already retired and Shane Mumford seems likely do so the same.

Toby Nankervsi Sam Jacobs Richmond Tigers Adelaide Crows AFL 2017

(Photo by Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images)

Cam Ellis-Yolmen, David Mackay and Paul Hunter are the Crows’ other free agents his season. None has been linked to a move away from the club just yet, though Ellis-Yolmen might draw interest from some.

Could Adelaide pursue a free agent from another club? This seems unlikely – they haven’t been linked to any of note, and there aren’t really any who jump out as being an ideal recruit.

Trade period

There’s a funky smell coming out of the Adelaide Football Club at the moment. After a vastly disappointing result on field this season, where senior players were regularly dropped from the side to no great effect, rumour abounds that a variety of players may move away from the club.

Brad Crouch has been linked to St Kilda and confirmed the Saints have contacted his management. Crouch said there wasn’t anything more to the rumour than that, but it’s not the first time he’s been talked about in this space.

The city of Adelaide bristled with rumour at Eddie Betts had been told he would be moved on – this was latter denied by Eddie and the club, but it appears likely he’ll leave anyway for Carlton or Gold Coast.

Bryce Gibbs was dropped three times during the season and while there hasn’t been any serious suggestion he might leave the club, or any parties rumoured to be interested, one has to think something must change for him.

Rory Laird is the latest who has been linked to a move – somewhat speculatively, to be certain, but an example of how just about any Crows player seems to be up for discussion right now.

Hugh Greenwood is one who seems almost certain to be on the move, although exactly where to is a matter of some debate. Hawthorn, Brisbane, Gold Coast and St Kilda are all known to be interested parties.

Josh Jenkins, after spending a decent chunk of time in the SANFL this season, seems likely to seek opportunities elsewhere – they only question is whether any clubs will be seriously interested in taking on his long, well-paid contract.

Josh Jenkins Adelaide Crows AFL 2017

(Photo by Morne de Klerk/Getty Images)

Alex Keath seems a strong chance to be playing elsewhere also next season. The Western Bulldogs probably would be his most likely destination, but they’re not the only club interested in him.

Finally, co-captain Taylor Walker is a player who has drawn the ire of many over the past two seasons. No one appears to be seriously pursuing him at this stage, but, like Gibbs or Jenkins, it’s clear something needs to change here.

To have at least eight players potentially in discussion to leave the club, regardless of the respective likelihoods of those deals occurring (I suspect at least four will), paints a picture of a club in crisis, and which has big decisions ahead of it.

We know presently that the Crows are undergoing an external review which will help them clarify what direction they go in, and until that process is complete it’s hard to discuss in detail how these deals might pan out.

Are there any players who could come into the club? The one who Adelaide have been consistently linked to throughout the season is Brodie Grundy, but I would be surprised to see this happen.

Grundy is arguably the best player in the competition – certainly, the best ruckman – and being a free agent next year, is already in discussions with Collingwood about the future beyond that.

As a South Australian boy you would expect his most likely destination if he did move would be to come back home, and with Port Adelaide signing Scott Lycett last offseason that seemed to narrow down the Crows to his most likely destination.

Before Reilly O’Brien got a run at AFL level this rumour may well have had some genuine heat to it – Sam Jacobs was on the wane, and Adelaide didn’t yet have a replacement who they could be confident would make the grade.

O’Brien’s form once he came into the team however was excellent, and he signed a three-year contract to remain at the Crows a little while ago.

That being the case, it would be frankly baffling if Adelaide pursued Grundy. It would cost them a boatload of both cash and trade currency, only to push a player who is already performing that role well enough out of the side.

My suspicion is that any rumours of Grundy and a move to the Crows will only serve his management’s hopes to extract a long-term, big-money deal out of Collingwood. If he does move clubs, it won’t be to come here.

Brodie Grundy

(Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

With that off the cards, is there anyone else the Crows should be considering? They aren’t limited to only recruiting local-born talent, of course, but that is the direction these things generally go in.

Jack Lukosius at Gold Coast is probably the most tantalising prospect who could potentially be on the market. He is still contracted for 2020 at the Suns, but hasn’t yet extended his deal with the club.

That news understandably leads to speculation about his future and if the Crows believe he’s likely to come home next year, they might feel there’s impetus to strike now and prevent Port also contesting the race for him.

Adelaide already have pick 3 that they can offer up to Suns and, if some of the players mentioned above leave the club, will only have more currency to throw at them.

If Lukosius wants to come home then the Crows are undoubtedly in the best position to land him this offseason. Watch this space.

The other two South Australians who’ve been linked to trades around the league are both located at Essendon: Orazio Fantasia, and Aaron Francis.

At this stage, both seem more unlikely than likely to be on the move this year. Fantasia was recently unequivocal in saying he’ll be at the Bombers next year (but less commital on the future beyond that), while Francis despite requesting a trade home two years ago seems happy enough at the club, though hasn’t signed a new deal for 2020 yet.

Draft

Picks inside 30: 3, 21.

The Crows have a better hand in the draft than their ladder position would usually deliver them this year, thanks to trade deals with Carlton last offseason which mean they hold the Blues’ first two picks rather than their own.

Of course, this hasn’t worked out quite as goldenly as the Crows might have hoped – for a brief while during the year, it seemed like they might finish well inside the eight and yet somehow get pick 1 via Carlton.

The clubs moved closer towards each other on the ladder as the season went on however and now the deal has probably worked out to be a fairly equitable one, if not a minor win to Carlton, with the obvious caveat that we don’t even know what players those picks will become as yet.

Unfortunately that has moved Adelaide out of the top two of this year’s draft, which is where the best talent lies. They’ll now instead be one of the first clubs to pick from what is a fairly even bunch, assuming they keep the pick.

And that is not necessarily an assumption that should be made. It’s known that Adelaide have put this pick on the trade table for clubs who might be interested, with an eye to turning it into two later picks.

The issue for them is that GWS, the club most likely to be able to make a deal like this work, are already believed to be in discussion with Melbourne, who are a selection above Adelaide in the draft.

Brisbane, currently with picks 15 and 19, are the only other team who’d probably be in the conversation, and Adelaide may consider that inadequate compensation.

Probably their best hope instead would be that Gold Coast wind up with Carlton’s pick 8 via a Jack Martin trade, and would then hold 8 and 17 – but that would be a long way to go to essentially swap what was pick 19 last year for pretty much the same number pick this year.

More likely I’d say is Adelaide will take the pick to the draft and who they might then select is hard to say, since it’s probably going to be shaped by which players they lose, and it’s not clear how that will play out just yet.

I would consider them a strong chance to place a bid on GWS Academy prospect Tom Green, a tall and powerful inside midfielder. Even if he’s not exactly the best fit for them, they’ve shown a willingness to bid on academy prospects before. The Giants are sure to match, though.

Caleb Serong and Hayden Young would probably then be the two players most likely in the mix. Serong could be a good option for the Crows as an undersized but powerful midfielder who is dangerous near goal, while Young brings real class and could be someone they look to play on a wing.

Hayden Young

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

If they’re keen on a local boy there isn’t really an obvious one in this range – Dylan Stephens and Will Gould are the best prosepcts coming out of South Australia this year, but it would be a surprise to see either of them taken this early.

That said, Cam Taheny is one who might be appealing to them at their second selection.

What I said last year

“Just about everything that could go wrong this year did go wrong, ranging from stories of a bizarre pre-season camp to recent news that captain Tex Walker was punished for breaking team drinking rules.

“I’m trying to look primarily at what can be measured about a club’s list in this series, so won’t be speculating too much about the more intangible aspects of what makes a club successful, or not.

“Suffice to say the Crows’ list is in healthy shape but… they’ve now produced such an improbably high amount of smoke as to make one believe there must be at least some kind of fire.”

Outlook

Whatever unrest existed at Adelaide in season 2018 appears only to have festered and grown more cancerous in that year that has followed.

In a league that includes Gold Coast, they appear somehow the most crisis-stricken club in the competition, and depending on who you listen to, could see a quarter or more of their list walk out the door.

What felt like a healthy-looking list over the last two years has become less so. The club invested disproportionately in prime and veteran age players for a poor result, suggesting they’re neither rebuilding nor actually good enough to contend.

That’s the kind of a position that would lead me to think a list is head for the cliff… but, it’s exactly what I said about West Coast two years ago – you know, right before they won a premiership – and I may have grown a little wiser since.

I’ll offer Adelaide have two paths they can choose to go down. One is to give the list a little shake-up, the other is to put on a full-blown fire sale.

The 2017 Eagles should be seen as a model. Rather than cling to their veterans in the hopes they could drag them towards a premiership, West Coast made difficult decisions to cut two Brownlow Medallists in Sam Mitchell and Matt Priddis, allowing them to freshen up and rethink their midfield mix.

They also pulled off a canny trade with Gold Coast that year which allowed them to have multiple bites of the cherry in a draft that other clubs felt was week, bringing in future premiership player Liam Ryan as well as some promising prospects in Oscar Allen, Jack Petruccelle and Jarrod Brander.

Adelaide could do something similar: picking the right players to say goodbye to, and bringing in some fresh faces by trade or by draft. Going through this process could give them the circuit breaker they need to jump back up the ladder, quickly.

Those inside the club are better placed than me to say what should happen here but David Mackay, Josh Jenkins and Hugh Greenwood are the three I’d say should be allowed or encouraged to leave.

Jenkins is simply not that good of a player and even if the Crows have to pay part of his salary to get him to a new home it’s worth doing so that they can stop having the debate with themselves over whether or not he should be in the side.

Greenwood is a perfectly fine player, but has his limitations and isn’t the only one in the side with those same limitations. He’s also 27. I’d say he’s competing with Matt Crouch and Rory Sloane for a spot – Crouch is younger and better, Sloane is better too and also the captain.

Mackay is 31 and, with all due respect, a below-average footballer. The only purpose he serves right now is to keep younger players out of the team. It’s time to move on.

The other two who need a change of pace are Taylor Walker and Bryce Gibbs. Again, those know and interact with them will have better information from which to make a decision on these players, but personally I wouldn’t be looking to move either out of the club.

Gibbs I can’t see another club being interested in, nor him being willing to move. He’s 30 but I don’t think his poor form is age-related. Instead a fresh approach to coaching him is needed, maybe a spurt of time in a different position.

With Walker, surely both parties can hopefully agree it is time to give up the captaincy. This will release pressure and reduce scrutiny on both him and the club, will giving him more time and energy to devote to playing his best football, something that could be helped by taking Jenkins out of the forward line also.

Taylor Walker

(Photo by Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images)

Probably the ideal draft result would be to pull off that downgrade trade the Crows are known to be looking for and hopefully land a combination like Sam Flanders and Dylan Stephens. This would help balance out the Crows’ midfield mix with two players who can run and create.

The more daring alternative I’ll put forward here is to go to Essendon with an offer of pick 3 for Orazio Fantasia and Aaron Francis. Fantasia would be a beautiful addition to Adelaide’s forward mix while Francis would give them license to let Alex Keath go and get another draft pick in for him.

An audacious move and one I’d say is unlikely to play out – but it’s worth considering.

Even though the Crows have missed finals the last two seasons, there’s still a strong core of prime-age talent at the club and this is exactly what allows them to seriously consider going for a shake-up like this with a serious chance of it seeing them bounce back up the ladder.

While that strategy would be my recommendation, one has to acknowledge that core of valuable players could also potentially be used as fuel for a fire sale.

If the Crows feel like their premiership window has slammed shut, then they could put anyone and everyone up on the trade table and see what they can get. Like Carlton in the 2015 period, they have a lot of players who, even if down on form lately, will be tempting enough for other clubs that they may pay a good price.

Going down that path could put Adelaide in the position to make a massive investment in the draft, and possibly also have enough picks to make Gold Coast a sweet deal for Jack Lukosius, if he’s willing to move. It would be a bold strategy, and one that makes things worse before they get better.

Whichever of these paths Adelaide decides to go down, the question we haven’t asked here is whether it can be done under current senior coach Don Pyke. Given how they’ve underperformed over the last two years, I find it hard to believe that will be the case, but it’s not really a matter this analysis is designed to address.

The only thing certain is that they can not sit on their hands and take this same playing group into 2020. Something at the club has clearly become toxic and there will need to be departures and arrivals to resolve that situation.

My only caveat is, don’t move on Eddie Betts. He may not be what he was, but it’s silly to think he can’t still play a role. Pushing him out the door would tear the heart out of fans and the playing group.

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

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