Essendon have had middling success for years now, having made the finals two of the past three seasons, but trading in a very proactive and aggressive way that is associated with a club inside their premiership window.
The latest draft shows the ambivalence of the list management team to strong inside bulls.
In 2019, Essendon finished eighth, barely scraping into the finals on percentage and wins. Their best football was electric, entertaining and powerful. Their worst was listless, apathetic and frustrating.
Essendon were in the bottom third of the competition for marks (87.6 per match), clearances (36.3 per match) and goals (11.1 per match).
This paints the portrait of a side that had to grind out every single win, and had a small margin for error when facing top eight teams. Some of this could be attributed to their immense injury load, with many of their best 22 players missing several weeks throughout the season.
Despite this, there was a clear pattern of Essendon being forced into playing a coal-face inside game throughout the season but being unable to do so, forcing Conor McKenna and Adam Saad to play a back half run-and-gun style. This style works sometimes but runs the risk of leaving Essendon open to the counter attack.
As a result of this, the loss of clearances and contested possession led to big losses against the Western Bulldogs and Port Adelaide. It was clear that the smaller inside midfielders Essendon prefers and the big-bodied half forwards they had retrofitted into the midfield were not getting the job done.
Let’s review the players the Bombers have signed through the draft period.
At pick 30, they took Harrison Jones (197cm, 75kg) – a lightly built key forward prospect who was expected to go in the top 20. As such, Essendon did well to recruit this player where they did.
At pick 37, Nick Bryan (202cm, 87kg) – a big-bodied ruckman who has shown some promise throughout the national carnival, but is largely surplus to requirements given the presence of several talls.
At pick 56, Ned Cahill (178cm, 78kg) – a lightly built small forward who gut-runs all day. While he shows promise as a wingman or a forward pocket, he would lack the presence to be an inside midfielder.
At pick 63, Lachlan Johnson – the son of Brisbane Lions midfielder Chris Johnson who is a hard-at-it midfielder with the size and temperament of his father. Due to the rupture of an ACL ligament, he is unlikely to play next year.
In the rookie draft, Essendon nabbed Mitchell Hibberd. The 23-year-old averaged 25 touches per game as an inside midfielder but is lacking in fundamental skills as indicated by his delisting from North Melbourne. He could be the powerful inside distributor that Essendon have been crying out for over the past two seasons, but this isn’t proven.
As Category B rookies, there’s Ross McQuillan – a 20-year-old, 188cm Irishman with pace to burn, who could become an outside midfielder as he has the prototypical size and speed – and Cian McBride – an 18-year-old, 197cm key defender with raw talent but great physical KPIs, making him an interesting project player.
In the trade period, Essendon got two players. One was Andrew Phillips, who provides good ruck depth for Tom Bellchambers and a good option while Sam Draper is recovering from an ACL re-construction.
The other is Tom Cutler, a big-bodied outside midfielder and half back with a booming left boot. He is perhaps too similar to other Essendon players in that he primarily plays on the outside, but the club could potentially convert him to an effective third tall defender or inside midfielder.
Each of these players could slot into the other 17 sides as potential project players. But when considering Essendon’s specific context – recruiting aggressively like they’re in the premiership window and played meekly in a style not suited to the modern game – picking project players is a poor decision.
Essendon need to pick a core group of players that can develop effectively into what Essendon need, and as much as their run-and-gun style is attractive, poor use and morale lets Essendon down at times.
While the tumult of the last few years is not to blame on Adrian Dodoro, the difficulties the Bombers are having finding an appropriate inside midfielder are.