Jamarra Ugle-Hagan is the best prospect in the 2020 AFL draft.
Since its inception in 1997 the rookie list has created opportunities for footballers in the AFL that might not have existed otherwise.
It has always been the perfect avenue to give mature-age, injury-riddled footballers or those with knocks on them a chance in the AFL. The added benefit for teams is a player taken in the rookie draft initially has only a one-year contract on a lower base wage than players taken in the national draft, minimising the risk if they don’t work out.
Lots of players who were taken in the rookie draft look like first-round draft picks in retrospect. But the rookie list has recently been moving towards giving AFL players another opportunity.
Clubs draft delisted players from other teams or, more commonly, delist a player from their own list with the intention of redrafting them in the rookie draft.
Last year a trend started to emerge whereby clubs delisted players who were still contracted and later redrafted them to fulfil the required delistings and list vacancies for the draft and to manage the salary cap.
Last year’s rookie draft had 33 selections, and 16 of them were clubs redrafting their own players and three others who had played in the AFL before, leaving only 14 players who were completely new to the system.
The rookie list experienced further changes last year with the introduction of the preseason supplemental selection period (SSP) and midseason draft. Now footballers can join AFL lists as rookies just before the start of the season via the SSP or during the season through the midseason draft.
Thirteen players were taken in the first midseason draft last year and 11 were added to lists through the SSP in the lead-up to the 2020 season.
The nature of the rookie list was already in flux, but then COVID-19 happened. While it’s had massive implications for the AFL industry already, it will likely lead to a reduction in list sizes.
Caroline Wilson recently reported for the Age that clubs have been told to expect playing lists of 35 next season, which will be down to 30 by season 2022.
A current AFL squad consists of around 45 players, including category B rookies, who are players outside of the playing list who are often from other sports codes or countries.
The rookie list is moving towards a system for recycling AFL players and allowing clubs to fill immediate holes on their list just before or during the season. While this can benefit mature-age players outside of the AFL system, it comes with the expectation that they are ready to come in and play a role, and it will limit the opportunity for those with less experience or injury issues.
It looks like a top-up mini-draft will happen this year due to the possibility of a fast-tracked season, and in a future with less player depth due to smaller list sizes, the flexibility to add footballers to compensate for injuries seems inevitable.
The game is moving towards major international sports like the NBA and NFL, where player signing windows are far more open and include contracts that last only ten days.
While these new recruiting methods can provide more opportunities for players outside of the AFL system, they can also be more restrictive. A player taken in the SSP has likely missed most of the preseason, and in the midseason draft players are expected to adapt to a new system halfway through the year.
While footballers can still get their AFL opportunity, they might not be getting their best chance to succeed due to their lack of time in the system. This puts a greater emphasis on players who have already been in and experienced the AFL.
Smaller list sizes risk turning the rookie list into an AFL player recycling factory, with the same group of ex-AFL players continually coming in and out of the system on a needs basis, rather than being a place to select prospects who need to develop.
The prospect of smaller list sizes and the changing nature of the rookie list might mean opportunities for some footballers will be fewer than they were in the past.