Part 1 of the six-part series comprises the five players the Adelaide Crows, Brisbane Lions and Carlton Blues can least afford to lose in 2021, plus each side gets one honourable pre-draft mention.
Kade Simpson is the closest thing to a modern-day warrior in the AFL.
Whether it be official or not, the sun is soon setting on the career of Simpson, one which warrants enormous respect and deserves recognition.
I am not a Carlton supporter, but my appreciation and admiration for Simpson has been long-standing.
The 36-year-old has never been Carlton’s star player.
He has never been one of the league’s top players, nor is he at the top of lists for the flashiest players.
Simpson has seldom been recognised for his exploits, never making the All Australian team.
But at the conclusion of the 2020 home-and-away season, Simpson will have played 342 games for one of the biggest clubs through the history of the sport, sitting third on the all-time list for Carlton.
Playing through the most tumultuous time in modern history for the club, Simpson has been a pillar of consistency and reliability.
In the darkest times for Carlton supporters, they were always able to look at their number six with the long-sleeves, and know that he would give it his all.
Perhaps this is the biggest compliment a player can be given.
Kade Simpson has always been a shining light and a pillar of positivity for Carlton and ultimately, the league.
It isn’t as though Simpson hasn’t been recognised internally.
He was in Carlton’s leadership group at 21 years of age, filled in as captain when he was 23 and established himself as the club’s key ball carrier on the wing quickly.
Between 2006 and 2012, many didn’t quite appreciate just how good Simpson was on the wing.
He finished with 11+ goal assists and 100+ marks in each of these seven seasons as an advanced wingman, and kicked at least 11 goals in six of the years.
It was from that point Simpson became what we know now – a halfback flanker producing quality with an incredibly high floor, playing with metronomic consistency and a desire to do anything for his team.
The word “admirable” feels both underwhelming and apropos in this case, given the struggles of the Blues compared to the output of the club legend.
As good as he was on the wing, Simpson’s leadership and calmness was so important across halfback during those years.
While it didn’t result in on-field success, there’s little doubt that things could’ve been much worse without him.
2013 was the year Simpson finally broke through to win the best-and-fairest award, ultimately his only individual award at AFL level.
This was a reward for his ability to rebound and launch off halfback, still playing high enough to produce at both ends thanks to his willingness and fight.
As he has grown older, Simpson has settled a little deeper when Carlton’s in possession, while finding himself higher up the field in the defensive press for the turnover and ability to get the ball inside 50.
His average of 27 disposals and seven marks with 15 goal assists in 2016 out of defence was almost revolutionary in its industrious nature along Sam Docherty, numbers that we have grown accustomed to thanks to the likes of Rory Laird previously, and Jake Lloyd.
The main takeaway from a gander through the statistics is that Kade Simpson has never let Carlton down.
Regardless of position or role, and regardless of title, Simpson has stood up and been a representative for Carlton through the good times, and bad.
Perhaps that is why Simpson has always been a well-liked player among the general AFL fan-base.
While it isn’t a generational difference, there are certainly subsets within the fandom of Simpson, all of which are conjoined by the underlying love, respect and admiration.
There are diehard Carlton supporters who have always known what other may not have.
Analysts and lovers of the game with the ability to separate bias from love of the game love Simpson for his application and heart.
Maybe he earned a host of fans after the infamous collision with Sharrod Wellingham, where he was knocked unconscious before hitting the ground, selfless and courageously searching for an aerial intercept from a Dane Swan rebound.
Even fantasy football players created a cult following for their most reliable defender, which in itself creeps into the AFL world’s admiration.
Regardless of the reason or motivation, a fan of the game of Australian Rules Football is a fan of Kade Simpson.
Through 18 seasons at the end of 2020, Simpson will have only played in three “winning” years – and one of them was in 2004 where he only played three games.
He made history as the player to have played in the most losses in AFL/VFL history, but perhaps that should be seen as a testament to his loyalty to Carlton, and his leadership qualities that create his desire to turn things around with the club.
In his book Leather Soul, Bob Murphy wrote about his surprise for the “paternal instinct” that awoke in himself later in his career, understanding that under his guidance, he could provide “refuge for the next generation”.
It feels an apt sentiment for what Simpson has become, without the off-guarded nature that struck the former Bulldog.
Simpson has always been a leader in his own right for Carlton, and has had an immeasurable impact on the development and maturity of countless players throughout his time in the AFL.
It guarantees the lasting impact of Simpson will stay within the Blues for years after he departs the Blues.
Watching Sam Docherty, Tom Williamson and Nic Newman, all look to have shades of Simpson’s intangible spirit, with a desire to fight and scrap in their roles regardless of their surroundings.
Everyone has their own definition of what a warrior is.
It implies experience, and it implies persistence.
A big heart and a desire to succeed, throwing those beside him on his back and dragging them forward with him.
Maybe in sporting parlance, there’s an over-reliance on fighting metaphors.
But with Simpson, he is one of the few AFL warriors in the modern era and deserves universal adoration and respect.
If 2020 is indeed the end of his career, Simpson has given the game far more than he has drawn from it accolade-wise.
When all is said and done though, and the long-sleeve guernsey is hanging in the rafters, Simpson should be proud of what he has produced.
He’s a club legend, a mentor and one of the most-loved figures at Carlton.
Kade Simpson is a modern-day AFL warrior, and we are thankful for his service.