After an interrupted and uncertain opening three rounds of the 2020 AFL season, most of the competition’s 18 teams are still bobbing up and down somewhere in the ambiguous territory between certifiably good and certifiably bad.
An exception to that rule – and certainly the strongest exception if not possibly the only exception at this stage – is the Adelaide Crows, who sit winless at the bottom of the ladder with an abysmal percentage of 50.8.
Adelaide’s list management decisions at the end of 2019 – which saw them trade more than 700 games of experience out of the club and drop from being the league’s second-oldest listed to the 13th – sent fans a message about the club’s direction over the next few years that has only been reinforced by their form in the opening rounds.
It’s clear that the Crows are embarking on a rebuild and it will arguably be the deepest in the history of the club, which has never previously won fewer than seven games in a year or finished lower than 14th.
Of course, before we get into the matter of just how the Crows should go about it, it’s important to acknowledge that the club has experienced cultural issues over the past two years which are as much – if not more – of a contributor to their present nadir than the details of their playing list.
Journalists and perhaps in particular footy journalists (and human beings everywhere more broadly) are by nature story-tellers and pattern-seekers, so much so that they can sometimes constructive narratives and see patterns where they do not exist.
I know that’s what many Adelaide fans will feel the media has done to the club over the last two years – drawing links between each new controversy to those that have come before in the hopes of magnifying the impact of a minor incident, driving clicks and selling papers. And it would be naive to suggest that hasn’t occurred to at least some degree.
At the same time, there’s a kernel of truth beneath it all. The club’s actions over the last two years paint a picture of an organisation that struggles to hold itself accountable for its actions. One that, when criticised, seeks to mitigate damage and push the blame onto others, rather than accept responsibility and seek out self-improvement.
Even wise list-management and quality coaching may not inspire on-field success until a cultural change is completed, and if senior figures can’t make that transition then it may be time they moved on. Similarly, the club’s on-field performance could improve markedly if the culture improves even without a drastic reshaping of the playing list.
With that disclaimer out of the way: let’s get to the fun stuff, and talk trade and draft hypotheticals!
The Crows have seen a number of quality players walk out the door over the past decade, but the positive coming out of this is that they’ve taken seven first-round selections – Wayne Milera, Tom Doedee, Jordan Gallucci, Darcy Fogarty, Chayce Jones, Ned McHenry, and Fischer McAsey – over the past five drafts.
In this time, Adelaide have had a barren run trying to find best-22 players outside the first round. Leaving aside Hugh Greenwood and Alex Keath, who’ve both left the club, Lachie Murphy is the only player who has become a regular in the senior side.
Recent acquisitions like Harry Schoenberg, Josh Worrell and Will Hamill will hopefully go on to break that trend, but at the moment it’s not a great outcome from five years of drafting.
As for the first rounders, all but Gallucci – who just hasn’t found a way to use his speed at AFL level and seems a likely candidate for delisting – have been first-choice players this year. Most should become solid players, though it’s either questionable or too soon to tell whether any of them appears to be an All Australian talent.
You can’t be an elite team without elite players, and the best way – while certainly not being infallible – to get them is with early draft picks. Luckily, Adelaide find themselves in an enviable position to do just that over the next two offseasons.
The Crows have not only their own selections in the first rounds of the 2020 draft, but also the first-round pick belonging to GWS (via a pick swap), and the second-round pick tied to the Western Bulldogs (via the Josh Bruce deal). They also have Collingwood and Fremantle’s third-rounders, but not their own.
On current form, we’d expect Adelaide’s picks to feature early and this provides a potential incentive to influence their decision-making on one of their most pressing list decisions – what to do about Brad Crouch’s impending free-agent status.
Crouch flirted with Gold Coast last offseason and if he should leave the club on a big enough contract to attract band-1 compensation, the Crows could find themselves with an additional pick inside the top five.
That could be especially valuable in a year like 2020, where an abundance of academy and father-son tied talent is expected to wreak havoc upon the draft order likely from the mid-to-late first round onwards. Being able to swoop on two open-draft prospects early would be a boon.
And to maximise their early shorts at the best talent, Adelaide could consider packaging the Giants’ first-rounder with some of their picks from the second and third rounds to move up to another early selection.
The Western Bulldogs, for example, may have a top-ten pick to put on the table that they know is likely to be used up by matching a likely early bid for key forward Jamarra Ugle-Hagan, and be interested in a deal that gives them a large volume of draft points.
For a rebuilding team, Adelaide are in the enviable position of having a number of players that other clubs would pay a decent draft price to get their hands on. Over the next 24 months, they must strike the right balance between getting maximising their hand at the draft and maintaing some stability and leadership on their playing list.
Crouch is the only name of consquence out of contract this year, but at the end of 2021 all of Brodie Smith, Daniel Talia, Matt Crouch, Rory Laird, Taylor Walker, and Tom Lynch are on track to be eligible free agents.
I’ll be stunned if those seven are all still playing at the Crows when the 2022 season rolls around, and the list-management team should have honest conversations with these players as soon as possible and weigh up who to keep.
I’d be setting a goal to take five top-ten draft picks over the next two years, and let Brad Crouch and at least one more player find new homes to achieve it. History will make the point more than clear that not every pick is a winner, but the more you take and the earlier you take them, the better your chances of finding elite talent.
Exactly who would make a good draft target right now with no under-18 footy yet played in 2020 is up in the air, but one name the Crows will spend a lot of time on is local boy Riley Thilthorpe.
He’s a big key forward with remarkable athleticism and would be a great piece to have alongside Fogarty, McAsey and Worrell while building the future spine.
Right now the Crows find themselves at arguably the lowest point in their history – and while they’re capable of better on-field performance than they’re showing, they are not going to become premiership contenders again overnight.
But there is cause for optimism. They have assets enough – whether they are draft picks or players who could become draft picks – that if smart decisions are made over the next 24 months, they could quickly find themselves possessing a youth contingent with talent and excitement to rival the most promising in the league.