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Drought-stricken Dons ought to practice calm, not cannibalism

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19th September, 2019
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Today my AFL list analysis and offseason preview series is back in action with the Essendon Bombers, a side who despite making a splash in two consecutive trade periods remain unsuccessful in finals.

A reminder that you can find greater detail on the metrics used to analyse clubs in this series in my article on Gold Coast a few weeks back.

You should also check out our master list of AFL Trade Rumours and our rolling AFL Phantom Draft!

Five-year strategy

The last five years shows a clear transition at Essendon between heavily targeting the draft through the 2014-16 offseasons, to a more trade-focused strategy in the last two years.

In 2014 despite sanctions related to the supplements saga the Bombers still managed to take a decent hand to the draft, having negotiated the AFL to allow them a pick at the end of the first round, and receiving another first-round pick from trading Paddy Ryder to Port Adelaide.

They were then able to put a big spend into the draft again over the next two years, through a combination of finishing lower on the ladder and selling valuable players to rival clubs.

In 2015 they had picks 5 and 6 thanks to the deal that saw Jake Carlisle go to St Kilda. They also let Jake Melksham go for a second-round pick in this offseason, and then saw off Michael Hibberd to the same destination for roughly the same price in the year that followed.

The last two years have been a swing wildly in the opposite direction – they haven’t allowed any players of value to leave the club, and have traded themselves almost completely out of two drafts, as well as selling their first-round pick this year, to acquire mature targets from opposition clubs.

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This represents a clear change of gear, no doubt sparked by the club’s seventh-placed finish in 2017. How successful it will be in the long term, and how long Essendon will stick with it, remain unanswered questions.

Essendon Bombers Draft-Trade Analysis 2014-18
Source Spend
Year Organic Trade Draft Trade
2014 1022 1508 76.6% 23.4%
2015 3483 2301 91.5% 8.5%
2016 4404 554 100.0% 0.0%
2017 2820 0 13.0% 87.0%
2018 2785 0 22.6% 77.4%
Total 14514 4363 69.8% 30.2%

Drafting

The Bombers have only had three drafts over this period of time where they had any picks of note, but in two of those they had multiple first-round selections, and in one of them they had the first pick overall.

In 2014 they drafted Jayden Laverde and Kyle Langford with their two picks in the teens, and they’ve played more than 100 games combined since. Langford has become a fixture of the side, albeit without starring, while Laverde has remained on the fringe.

Nevertheless, they actually are meeting the expected return here, more so due to the success of mature rookie picks Shaun McKernan and Conor McKenna. They have 51 AFLCA votes between them since being drafted in this year, Langford has six and Laverde none.

This is something of a trend across Essendon’s drafting – early picks who aren’t quite on par with their peers, made up for by good picks later in the piece, often specifically in the form of mature recruits.

Darcy Parish and Aaron Francis for example, both top ten picks in the 2015 draft, have probably not delivered everything fans hoped they would just yet, but the Bombers have gotten more games and AFLCA votes from the trio of Mitch Brown (pick 54), Michael Hartley (pick 64) and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti (rookie pick 22).

Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti of the Bombers celebrates a goal during the 2017 AFL round 20 match between the Essendon Bombers and the Carlton Blues at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on August 05, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

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

No.1 selection Andy McGrath has done the bulk of the heavy lifting from the 2016 draft so far. Although he won the Rising Star award in his first year, in comparison to the next two players taken after him, McGrath has recorded 11 AFLCA votes so far while Tim Taranto has 57 and Hugh McCluggage 56.

These players are only three years into what will be long careers, of course, so it’s too early to judge the pick – but, McGrath clearly has some ground to make up.

Matt Guelfi is the only name of note taken in the last two drafts. Him aside, none of the players Essendon have acquired via the draft in this time have managed to play a double-figure number of games just yet, though that’s not surprising given how little they’ve invested.

Overall, Essendon’s drafting broadly hits the expected benchmarks, or sits just a little below them. What’s more interesting is what a large proportion of their performance typically comes from canny mature-age pick-ups later in the draft, rather than from nailing any of their top picks.

Essendon Bombers Draft Analysis 2014-18
Year Drafted Spent Games Votes
2014 6 1937 223 57
2015 11 5291 319 86
2016 9 4958 147 35
2017 5 367 33 2
2018 6 630 14 0
Total 37 13183 736 180

Trading

The Bombers had relatively little interest in trading through the first three years of this period, with the most notable blips on the radar being two ruckmen – Jonathan Giles and Matthew Leuenberger – and an aging Brownlow Medallist in Adam Cooney.

The Dons also recycled the likes of James Gwilt, Craig Bird, James Kelly, Matt Dea, Josh Green and James Stewart over this period of time – Kelly and Dea proving handy especially during 2016, but none of the players acquired in this time played more than 50 games for the club.

A surprise finals berth in 2017 saw Essendon make a significant change of direction in their strategy. Having invested hard in the draft particularly in the two years prior, they’ve focused almost purely on trading in rival players over the last two offseasons.

2017 saw them pick up a trio of recruits in Jake Stringer, Devon Smith and Adam Saad, all of whom have, individually, gone on to be good contributors. Smith missed a big chunk of this year but won the best-and-fairest in his first season at Essendon, Stringer and Saad have both performed well.

Overall, Essendon are ahead of the curve in terms of expected return from their trade investment in that year – they should expect around 99 games and 62 votes, but they’ve got 110 of each.

Last year they landed one of the most talked-about players on the market in Dylan Shiel, and paid an almighty price – two first-round picks with a second-round picking coming back the other way, or, roughly the equivalent of pick 3 on the DVI scale.

Shiel arrived at Essendon with as much or more hype behind him than any other trade recruit. While he’s arguably meeting the expected performance of the trade so far, it’d be fair to say that on a more subjective level he hasn’t had the transformative impact on the club’s performance that fans were hoping for.

Dylan Shiel

(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/AFL Photos/Getty Images)

Broadly speaking, Essendon’s trade-ins have so far performed at or above the level that we could project based on the DVI they invested in them. There’s no reason to question the quality of their performances on an individual level, but Essendon fans would be disappointed they haven’t improved the overall performance of the team.

Essendon Bombers Trade Analysis 2014-18
Year Gained Lost Spent Games Votes
2014 3 1 593 60 10
2015 2 3 493 49 6
2016 4 3 0 89 13
2017 3 1 2453 110 110
2018 1 1 2155 21 33
Total 13 9 5694 329 172

List profile

The combination of some years heavily invested in the draft, some heavily invested in trades has left Essendon with a list profile that is, broadly speaking, normal. They have a few more veterans and a few less prime-age players than the league average, but a lot of their veterans are only 28, so it’s not that noteworthy.

The Bombers’ AFLCA vote production as fairly standard across the board. They lagged behind a little in terms of both youth and prime-age groups, but not by a significant amount, and were bang on the average from their veteran players.

Overall, in terms of list profile, Essendon are actually probably the closest thing we’ve seen so far to a ‘typical’ AFL list. This being the case, their finish almost exactly in the middle of the ladder shouldn’t really come as a surprise.

Essendon Bombers list profile
Age Players Games % of total Votes % of total
18-22 23 165 35.71% 34 12.50%
23-27 15 175 37.88% 167 61.40%
28+ 9 122 26.41% 71 26.10%
Total 47 462 100.00% 272 100.00%

Under or over?

Essendon’s average 22 was the eighth oldest in the competition this year, and ranked 11th for average games of experience.

This is a larger discrepancy than we generally see in age versus experience, and it can probably be traced back to the significant number of mature rookies Essendon recruited in 2014-15.

Essendon had a solidly good winning rate when they were the more experienced side this year of 62 per cent, on par for the league average, and it’s worth noting that when they were more experienced, it was almost always by a marginal amount.

More impressive is that Essendon managed to win more than half the games they entered as the less experienced side, which is well above the league average.

The Bombers were eighth for EUR this year, able to use about 68 per cent of their list experience in any given week. This is just narrowly above the AFL average.

Verdict: Overperformed. While Essendon probably fell short of the more subjective expectations placed on them this season, the numbers suggest they performed on par with or ahead of what we should have generally expected given the side they put on the park each week.

Dyson Heppell

(Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Contract watch

Out of contract
Mitch Brown, Zac Clarke, Aaron Francis, Michael Hartley, Jordan Houlahan, Tom Jok, Jake Long, Ben McNiece, Trent Mynott, Will Snelling.

Pre-agents
Dyson Heppell, Joe Daniher, Martin Gleeson, Tom Bellchambers.

The Bombers have lost four players to retirement this year but are so far yet to announce any delistings, though there are some prime candidates among the out-of-contract group if they want to make space.

In terms of players to re-sign, their biggest priority would be Aaron Francis. Everything seems amicable with him despite him asking for a trade two years ago, so it’s surprising this hasn’t been wrapped up yet.

Mitch Brown and Michael Hartley you would assume should both get at least one-year deals as well. While not Essendon’s most important players, they provide handy key-position depth.

Joe Daniher is the big name on the pre-agents list, and one who seems to right now be weighing up the possibility of a trade. We’ll talk more about this soon.

Free agency

Mitch Brown, Zac Clarke, Will Snelling and Michael Hartley are all free agents at Essendon. Brown and Hartley might draw some interest if Essendon neglect to re-contract them, but none of these would bring in any significant compensation.

This does mean the Bombers have license of some kind to pursue a free agency recruit of their own, though it’s debatable if they really should. Most of the promising players on the list have already re-signed with their own clubs.

The first thought that occurs to me is for Essendon to consider a ruckman of some kind. While Tom Bellchambers is a handy player, he’s too often injured, and this robs Essendon’s midfield of continuity. Having a ruck they could reliably get 22 games from each year would be a boost.

With Sam Draper developing on the list, only a short-term option is really needed here, which is why Sam Jacobs would have some appeal. However, it seems more likely he’ll move to join GWS, so this probably isn’t a move Essendon will look to make via free agency.

The free agent they have recently been linked to, instead, is Brandon Ellis. He was believed likely to go to Carlton for a large period of the year before the Blues withdrew from the race, making his future a little more unclear.

Gold Coast have a significant interest in him and would presumably be offering a longer deal at better money, but Essendon have two major drawcards in that joining them would allow Ellis to a) stay in Victoria, and b) probably get to actually win games of football occasionally.

I’m not really convinced that Ellis is Essendon’s ideal recruit. The Bombers aren’t necessarily crying out for players in any particular position, much less his position, but more than anything need individuals of undeniably top-tier talent, which he is not.

Are there any of those in this year’s other free agents? Not especially, so let’s move on.

Trade period

Before we go any further, what has to be acknowledged is that having already traded out their first-round pick this year to get Dylan Shiel, the Bombers don’t have much in the way of currency to make a big move this year.

They currently hold pick 29 in the draft, and GWS’ second-rounder, which will be pick 33 at the earliest.

As such, if they want to be active either in the draft or the trade period this year, then they’ll probably need to move valuable players out so they can have currency to spend. There’s a few players on the list who’ve been linked to trades.

The most notable is, of course, Joe Daniher. Despite the first reports of his link with Sydney being met with widespread scepticism, it now seems clear the possibility of him moving clubs this offseason is a very real one.

Joe Daniher

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos)

This is a complex situation and because of that, it’s hard to tell exactly how it will pan out.

One major factor is Daniher’s injury history. After being All Australian in 2017, he has spent much of the last two seasons in the rehab room, something that will make any potential suitor wary.

Another is that Daniher becomes a free agent next year – any club wanting to pursue will choose between rolling the dice on leaving him at Essendon for another year and potentially signing him for free in 2020, or paying a price now to get a bird in hand.

Right now the club we know is interested is Sydney, who have probably invested enough into the draft over the last five years that they can afford to go for a big recruit now, and they have pick 4 in this year’s draft to begin negotiations with.

The Swans may also get pick 8 in the draft via Carlton in a Tom Papley deal, though it remains unclear whether this is genuinely likely or just speculation.

From the reports coming in, it sounds like there is goodwill between both Sydney and Essendon to get a deal done here, and that the sticking point right now is more whether Daniher wants to make the move.

Reading between the lines – and of course, quite possibly doing so incorrectly – it sounds as if the clubs have already agreed to a deal in principle and are waiting on Joe to give it the thumbs up.

That being the case I would suspect the likely trade is a simple as a straight swap of pick 4 for Daniher – but, time will tell.

Is this a good move for Essendon to make? Personally, I would argue not. Daniher, for all the potential concerns that come along with him, is one of the few genuinely elite talents on Essendon’s list.

They don’t have anyone on their list who can replace him either specifically as a key forward or in terms of his match-winning ability, and I’m not convinced even with that currency that they can find someone through the draft or trade period to do so.

Obviously, Essendon’s perception of Daniher’s injury history must be a major factor here. If the Bombers feel he’s unlikely to get his body right, then it makes sense to sell him now while the value is still high rather than wait until he becomes a total write-off.

Orazio Fantasia is another who has been linked to a trade out of Essendon, but this seems unlikely to come about in 2019.

Fantasia said before Essendon’s finals campaign that he would absolutely be at the club in 2020, but was less committal about the future beyond that, reflecting the reports earlier this year that he would at some point in his career seek a trade back to South Australia.

Orazio Fantasia Essendon Bombers AFL 2017

(Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)

The Bombers are presumably aware of this and that does leave them with the option of pulling the trigger when they feel the time is right. They can probably pick the right time to send Fantasia home, if an opportunity for them to get a good deal out of it comes up.

The future is less clear for Aaron Francis and Jayden Laverde.

Francis asked for a trade home two years ago but, despite being out of contract this year, hasn’t really been talked about much in terms of trades in 2019. He might be of interest to clubs at home in South Australia, but if anything was happening here you’d think we would have seen more smoke by now.

Laverde on the other hand has been linked to a trade away from Essendon a few times over the course of his career and that seems the case again in 2019. He has never really come on in a serious way at the Bombers, and might feel there’s a better chance of that happening elsewhere.

What’s clear is that if Essendon do want to sell off some of their players in search of currency to spend at either the draft or the trade table, they’ve got options. What should determine whether or not they go down this path is whether they feel like the rewards of doing so are worthwhile.

The Bombers have been linked to a couple of players as potential trade targets so far. The most interesting of them is Port Adelaide’s Sam Powell-Pepper.

The Bombers are widely known to lack dedicated ball-winners, while Port have an excess of them. This being the case, it’s unsurprising that a link like this would turn up.

They’ve been linked to Zak Jones at Sydney – though not very heavily – along a similar line of thinking. Whiles Jones spends time in defence at the Swans, he could be a full-time midfielder.

While both Powell-Pepper and Jones are ball-winners with a hard edge, I’m not sure either is a perfect fit at Essendon – both are probably too similar to last year’s big recruit, Dylan Shiel.

All three could be described as having nice break-away speed but being a bit hot-and-cold with their kicking. Shiel and Jones are both a bit undersized as modern midfielders, Powell-Pepper at 188cm is a bit more bullish.

Sam Powell-Pepper

(Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Essendon would be better served, in my opinion, by seeking out a genuine Goliath-sized coalface mid who is happy to feed it out to Shiel rather than be the guy trying to break the lines.

Powell-Pepper could play that kind of role if you wanted him to, but why pay the price for him when there are others more suited to it?

For mine, the number one target I would seek out would be Fremantle’s Connor Blakely. Despite signing a three-year contract extension just months ago, the most recent word is that he could be on the move.

Blakely was often played out of position during his time at Fremantle – I think if you put him into Essendon’s midfield and gave him a defined role playing on the ball, he would flourish.

In the same mould, Essendon could also look at Hugh Greenwood, Brayden Sier, or Charlie Constable. Greenwood at 27 is a mature and ready-to-go option, Sier is yet to re-sign with Collingwood despite reports of a new two-year deal, while Constable won a Rising Star nomination earlier in the year before losing his spot in Geelong’s 22. They’re all 191cm midfielders who would love to be Essendon’s feed-out guy.

Two other players Essendon have been linked to in this year’s trade period are Ed Langdon and Paddy Ryder.

Langdon, for mine, while a good player, is probably too similar to the others Essendon already have on their list – good at a lot of things, not elite at anything in particular. They have enough hard runners that they probably don’t need someone like him.

Ryder fits into the idea of a temporary ruck option as we talked about earlier with regards to Sam Jacobs – and he would come cheaply, too. I don’t mind it.

Are there any other names the Bombers should consider looking at on the trade table this year? There’s a few who catch the eye.

If they do go down the path of trading out Joe Daniher, I’d argue they should be on the lookout for a key forward. There’s a few names who might be on the market this year.

Jon Patton, by all reports, is bound to be at Hawthorn. But nothing is written in stone, and it could be worth Essendon making a hail mary play for his services. What have they got to lose?

The other is Josh Bruce. While linked to the Bulldogs, and still wanted at the club by St Kilda, again, there’s no reason why Essendon shouldn’t at least ask the question.

The other player that draws interest for me is Richmond’s Dan Butler. We know he has had interest from Cartlon, but with the Blues looking at a host of small forward options, he seems unlikely to be their top priority.

Butler, even if he didn’t become best 22 at Essendon right away, would be handy insurance if Fantasia leaves, can provide good forward pressure, and will have a pre-existing relationship with some of Essendon’s coaching staff including Ben Rutten and Blake Caracella.

Draft

Picks inside 30: 29.

Judging who Essendon could draft this year is made difficult by the fact we’re yet to get a clear read on what they’ll do during the trade period, and what kind of picks that will leave them with.

Currently they have picks 29 and 33. Assuming they take those to the draft, there’s a couple of handy names around who could play a role for them.

Brock Smith and Cooper Stephens are two who jump out at me for Essendon in this range.

Smith is a versatile lockdown defender who can take on talls and smalls, and would be a good replacement for the retirement of Mark Baguley.

Stephens is a tough, tall inside-midfielder who missed most of the year with a broken leg. He’s the kind of player Essendon need and could prove a real bargain if selected around this mark.

What if they get a high pick for Joe Daniher and take it to the draft? There’s a few names would be of interest to them.

If they get the chance to, I’d expect them to place a bid on GWS Academy prospect Tom Green. While the Giants seem certain to match, Green would be a perfect fit in the unlikely scenario Essendon could get a hold of him.

Tom Green

Tom Green (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

193cm utility Brodie Kemp could be a good fit for the Bombers too, if they looked to develop him as an inside midfielder, though he can also play forward.

Fisher McAsey could be a worthy recruit as a young key defender to develop for a few years and be ready to come into the side when Cale Hooker and Michael Hurley move on

Deven Robertson could be a good fit as a prolific ball-winning inside mid also.

What I said last year

“Shiel is a perfect fit for the Bombers in my book but what worries me is that they might be making the big mistake that so many AFL clubs seem to rush into making.

“Because they brought in three players last offseason, they had almost no involvement in the draft.

“That trade period could at best be called a qualified success – all three players were valuable contributors, Smith probably Essendon’s best for the year, but it didn’t move the team up the ladder any…

“Shiel, while worth getting, would cost Essendon at least one and quite possibly two first-round draft picks, meaning two or three years in a row of missing out on the chance to draft top-tier talent.

“And if Shiel doesn’t deliver a flag right away then aren’t they just going to feel pressure to keep trading away picks for mature talent, having already banked so much on immediate success?

“That is exactly how well-balanced lists start to crumble because while it’s not an immediate problem, at some point Essendon will need the players they should be drafting early now to stand up and shoulder the load – and they might not be there…

“It’s probably the most common mistake in AFL list management that the second clubs feel like they’re on a good wicket, they sacrifice the longterm balance of the list to bring in talent for success here and now…

“If I were a Bombers fan I’d be equally as happy to see someone like Jye Caldwell come in as a fresh draftee as I would Dylan Shiel, and know that the club is backing itself to build sustainable success organically through the draft.”

Outlook

When Essendon made finals in 2017 – only to be well-beaten by the Sydney Swans in the first week – the club clearly took it as a sign that their list was ready to contend and they should proactively seek out mature trade targets to push them further up the ladder.

That was the wrong call. Essendon’s finals appearance that year wasn’t really due to the development of young talent, but more the groundswell of momentum generated by the combination of getting their suspended players back and the good contributions of veteran players who retired immediately after.

Jobe Watson and James Kelly both played key roles for that Essendon game but finished up at season’s end. A smart reading of Essendon’s list position at the time would’ve been that a lot of things had gone right for the Bombers that year, and they were likely going to need a step back to go forward.

Instead, Essendon went down the path of trying to maintain acceleration up the ladder by pursuing mature recruits. They’ve had no trouble landing them, but despite the high-profile acquisitions of Dylan Shiel, Jake Stringer, Devon Smith and Adam Saad, have done no better over the last two seasons than they did in 2017.

Instead of taking them to the next level, these trades have instead just helped Essendon keep treading water at around the same mark on the ladder at a time when they probably should have slid down the ladder a bit and kept investing in the draft to build an exceptional young core.

It’s not hard to see why Essendon went in this direction – the club is starved of success, having not won a final in now fifteen years, and were looking for any reason to give fans hope and excitement after enduring an extended supplements saga.

Unfortunately the moves made have left Essendon just as deeply in malaise as they were before, and restricted the options now available to them as they seek to find a way out of it.

A contributing factor in this is that, as yet, it seems they haven’t really nailed any of the early draft picks they took in 2014-16. Will Andy McGrath, Darcy Parish, Aaron Francis and Kyle Langford become A-grade gamechangers, or just solid citizens? It’s too soon to say for certain, but they are trending towards the latter.

This frustration boils over; even though the club performed about as well on field as could reasonably be expected this year, they’ve made the call to move senior coach John Worsfold on at the end of next year.

The Bombers have gotten a taste over the past two offseasons of the trade drug, of how exciting it is to announce in October that you’ve landed a big name at the trade table. It makes fans happy, sells memberships, and builds momentum for the season to come.

But, it also increases expectations, and if you do it at a time where the list isn’t really ready to deliver on those, you can wind up between a rock and a hard place – having essentially committed your list strategy towards flag contention, but not really being good enough to actually achieve that.

That is, I would argue, where Essendon find themselves now. What can they do to get out of it?

Having spent most of their 2019 currency already, there’s an apparent temptation to cannibalise the list by trading out Joe Daniher and perhaps others in search of more currency to spend. This is, in my opinion, the wrong path to go down.

Essendon don’t have much in the way of specific position needs, instead I’d argue their biggest need is simply genuinely elite players. Losing one of these in Daniher to try and acquire others – especially when it’s unclear and questionable how this would actually be achieved – is just redundant.

Instead the direction I would call for is a moment of calm. Avoid making rash moves by not making too many moves. Think less about what players from opposition clubs could do to make you a better in team in 2020 and more about how the players already on your list could help to achieve that.

That said, Connor Blakely is the one player I would seriously consider pursuing. If he can be gotten for say pick 29 plus the return from letting someone like Jayden Laverde go, then that’s a move worth making.

Connor Blakely Fremantle Dockers AFL 2017

(Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

If he’s going to cost a high price, I’d instead look at a player of a similar type who would come more cheaply, like Charlie Constable. He may be worth trying to nab anyway, even if the Dons also land Blakely. Can’t hurt.

Aside from that, don’t shake things up any further for the sake of shaking things up. Let the new-look coaching team have a year with the playing list as it is, and give them license to experiment and push the boundaries.

Twelve months from now you’ll have a much better idea of what the list needs going forward, and more assets available to pursue that with.

While it might be counter-intuitive, I believe that approach is the one most likely to see Essendon rise up the ladder in 2020. They may need a period of real stability for organic growth to properly occur.

Going down the other path, and making a move like trading out Joe Daniher to make room for Sam Powell-Pepper and Brandon Ellis, to me seems likely only to sustain their current malaise.

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