The Roar
The Roar

AFL
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Opinion

The ten free agents to watch in 2021

Autoplay in... 6 (Cancel)
Up Next No more videos! Playlist is empty -
Replay
Cancel
Next
Roar Guru
14th January, 2021
40
2125 Reads

Free agency is a part of the game that’s brought interesting dynamics and if it wasn’t for the compensation pick debacles, it would be a more celebrated part of the game.

Ten free agents in 2021 will really dominate headlines in the upcoming season and both sides of the coin are addressed.

Disclaimer: players like Scott Pendlebury, Luke Parker, Joel Selwood, Robbie Gray, Dayne Zorko and Marcus Bontempelli are all free agents as well but can we really see them leaving?

1. Rory Laird (Adelaide): Restricted free agent

Why the Crows should keep him
The big ‘Rorza’ just turned 27 and had an unbelievable year when going into the midfield in 2020. Having 23 touches a game, one of the best back pockets in the league hit the midfield and dominated; note his 37 disposal game over the Pies.

Adelaide are rebuilding and Laird is one of those senior players that are required to stick around and with their youth rebuild beginning with talls like Fischer McAsey, Josh Worrell, Darcy Fogarty, Elliott Himmelberg and number two draft pick Riley Thilthorpe so the smaller mids and backs coming through need senior guidance and experience, which Laird delivers in spades and then some.

He finished second in the best and fairest in 2020.

Where could he go and what’s he worth?
In 2019, Geelong, Hawthorn and Essendon inquired about Laird’s services and dropping Geelong from that list makes sense. Hawthorn and Essendon could absolutely use Laird but Essendon makes the most sense from both parties.

The Dons will have a top ten pick again in 2021 and if you can get Adam Saad for Pick 8, Laird can get somewhere in the ballpark of that pick, perhaps a second-rounder for Laird and a third back. Adelaide should match the offer from whoever gives it up and trade. The Crows are running out of trade capital and Laird is one of a few nuggets remaining.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Sports opinion delivered daily 

   

2. Matt Crouch (Adelaide): Restricted free agent

Why the Crows should keep him
Crouch is one of those guys (a bit like Touk Miller) that seems like he’s been around forever but is only 25. He is as good an extractor as anyone in the competition and the Crows’ rebuild seems to be beginning around the centre square and not in it. Still so young and although he was dropped in 2020, he had an outstanding year.

His criticism of not being damaging enough is tiring at times, fans need to admire what players can do, rather than what they can’t.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Where could he go and what’s he worth?
In a weird way, COVID times have made it a terrible time to be an inside midfielder as there seems to be a greater need for multidimensional players compared to a player like Crouch and a Tom Mitchell, for example. If Essendon’s high-profile free agent departs, Crouch could be an answer.

Whilst very different players, Essendon would much rather have a 25-year-old proven ball-winner than another draft pick, given the choice. Sydney could be an option as Josh Kennedy is in the twilight of his career and possibly Carlton could be an option.

3. Patrick Cripps (Carlton): Restricted free agent

Why the Blues should keep him
Is an explanation necessary? The Blues’ skipper was a draft steal at 13 in the 2013 draft and is still only 26 (as of Round 1) so to think his prime could be ahead should be frightening. Carlton have added some weapons in that midfield for him with the likes of Matt Kennedy (who hasn’t quite come alive), Sam Walsh, Zac Williams will play a midfield role who’s dynamic, quick and a long kick and Lachie Fogarty was an underrated pick up by the Blues.

Patty Dow and Lochie O’Brien haven’t worked for Carlton which halted their midfield core but they’ve finally got some pieces to propel the boys from Ikon Park up the ladder. This could possibly be the best time to convince Cripps to stay but the Blues could still need wins to get it done.

From all reports, Cripps is one of the more loyal people out there and loves Carlton so only a disaster would stop their best player Chris since Judd from staying.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Patrick Cripps

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

Where could he go and what’s he worth?
Jeremy Cameron got GWS three first-round picks and that would be the base for Cripps, or two and some players. He is the epitome of an MVP and although Carlton learned to win some games without him, he is their best weapon and a Blues team without him is depleted. The only reason he’d go is to go home and win and West Coast seem the better option.

Fremantle would do everything they could, don’t be fooled but with the young midfield core pushing Nat Fyfe outside of the centre square, all that development would end instantly with those two beasts in the clutches but can you imagine? West Coast don’t have young midfielders coming through the bottom age that look like outstanding talent at this stage but a couple of midfielders like Dom Sheed and Jack Redden might struggle for a future if Cripps was to arrive.

He isn’t going anywhere though.

4. Jamie Elliott (Collingwood): Unrestricted free agent

Why the Pies should keep him
Elliott became a genuine x-factor midfield/forward hybrid that Pies fans thought they were getting from Jordan de Goey but the man with more ink than a Canon printer used his pace, foot skills and most importantly, footy IQ to be a connecting piece from the mids to the forwards. The 28-year-old is still in the Pies best 22 and could be a great influencer towards Pies wins and developing younger talent, especially Oliver Henry who the Pies got at Pick 17 in this year’s draft.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Where could he go and what’s he worth?
GWS, get on the phone and do it now! With the loss of Jeremy Cameron and the inclusion of Jesse Hogan, plenty of high balls will be coming in and with Zac Langdon gone, Brent Daniels isn’t setting the world on fire and there is a spot there for him. He and Toby Greene would be a nightmare for opposition defenders and if the Giants make the eight, he could be a missing piece.

Fremantle and Melbourne could be teams interested as well.

5. Zach Merrett (Essendon): Restricted free agent

Why the Bombers should keep him
Speaking sense inside Essendon seems a little strange at this point, considering Merrett, Cale Hooker (also a free agent) and Michael Hurley have been unceremoniously dumped from Essendon’s leadership group to the bemusement of Merrett himself, who was told he was too hard on his teammates and could be ruthless in his criticism. He can walk the walk with that talk as well of course given he’s given Essendon 25.8 disposals a game in his 142 games and at just 25 years old, he’d be the type of player Essendon would try and get from another club, so keep him there!

He’s one of the more underrated and fantastic midfielders with a beautiful left foot and has a better defensive game than most give credit for, averaging 5.25 tackles in his career and 3.5 in 2020.

Dyson Heppell of the Bombers (left) walks to the war cry with Zach Merrett of the Bombers during the 2018 AFL round 11 Dreamtime at the G match between the Essendon Bombers and the Richmond Tigers at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on June 02, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia.

(Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Where could he go and what’s he worth?
If you’re letting your 25-year-old star midfielder go without matching a bid, it better be a contract much beyond his worth. GWS set the precedent with Jeremy Cameron and if someone wants him enough, they’ll get it done. Carlton were the most heavily-linked club to Merrett in the 2020 offseason and will be the favourites again with wanting weapons for Patrick Cripps and the midfield.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Hawthorn were also linked to Merrett and should pursue him heavily, also North Melbourne will chase most players these days so their hat will be in the ring.

6. Josh Kelly (GWS): Restricted free agent

Why the Giants should keep him
The Giants have said goodbye to many a good midfielder in the past (Adam Treloar, Taylor Adams and Jack Steele among others) and in 2020, Jackson Hately and Jye Caldwell sought opportunities elsewhere. Kelly arguably has been their best midfielder even if he hasn’t been on the park as much as he would like.

He really is a Rolls Royce who is an elite user, gets the footy consistently and is an absolutely brilliantly finisher. From all reports, an outstanding member of the community and a top bloke too.

Where could he go and what’s he worth?
North Melbourne famously chased him feverishly and there is no doubt they will absolutely throw everything at him again and why wouldn’t they? GWS matched the Jeremy Cameron offer from Geelong and it would be stunning if they didn’t do it again. Kelly will be 26 at the end of the season so no doubt five and six-year deals will be thrown at him.

Hawthorn, Essendon, Carlton, Adelaide and even a Collingwood as a top-eight team last year should be looking pretty hard. It would be difficult for the Pies due to salary cap issues.

7. Robbie Tarrant (North Melbourne): Unrestricted free agent

Why the Kangaroos should keep him
Whilst perhaps not as high profile as some others on this list, Tarrant is one of a rare group of players who turned themselves from the man mocked to the man maligned and finally to the man most loved. Tarrant has been a bit like Mal Michael in the way of there always seem to be one backman ahead of him in All Australian talks but he is a star of the game.

Advertisement
Advertisement

He turns 31 on Anzac Day and by season’s end, won’t be in bad form and can be a mentor to Ben McKay as the young defender continues to develop and is a mentor and mature presence at Arden Street.

Robbie Tarrant

(Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Where could he go and what’s he worth?
As an unrestricted free agent, he’s worth whatever he can get from outside clubs and won’t bring in compensation for North but who should get him is the interesting question. Gold Coast are my favourite pick here, Port Adelaide are the only top team who needed key backs and they picked up Allir Allir and solved that problem.

Collingwood might be a consideration if Darcy Moore plays forward but for the Suns, Rory Thompson is banged up and what a mentorship possibility for guys like Charlie Ballard, Caleb Graham and even a Jack Lukosius and Jack Bowes who started in different positions and ended up in defence, much like Tarrant himself.

8. Nick Vlastuin (Richmond): Restricted free agent

Why the Tigers should keep him
One of the more underrated players during the Tigs’ dynasty, Vlastuin is a top cog in the backline who is tough, rarely loses his feet or a contest and makes good decisions. He turns 27 in April, he is hitting his prime and no one looks close at Punt Road to take his spot so he won’t be in a position like a Dan Butler, for example, who wasn’t the best in his spot at the time of trading.

With the backline consistently denying attacks and propelling forward movement, Vlastuin is a huge weapon and a required player.

Where could he go and what’s he worth?
Richmond aren’t really in a position to care enough about a compensation pick at this stage or matching it and trading. Essendon, GWS, North Melbourne, Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs seem like potential targets.

Advertisement
Advertisement

9. Jack Billings (St. Kilda): Restricted free agent

Why the Saints should keep him
It would be hard to find another player that the Saints have invested more time in than Billings in the last decade. Billings will always be compared to Josh Kelly (taken with the pick before him) and Marcus Bontempelli (taken with the pick after him) and is hitting his stride. He’s missed one game in the last four seasons, averages 22.4 disposals and is reaching that potential.

The Saints want that return on investment and with their premiership window wide open, he’s an integral piece.

Jack Billings

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

Where could he go and what’s he worth?
Let’s switch up the questions. If the compensation pick is in the top 20, St.Kilda might actually not match the bid. With Zak Jones, Jack Steele, Jade Gresham, Sebastian Ross and Daniel Hannebery as a midfield core, if a club came along with an offer that would strain St. Kilda, possibly isn’t the worst idea to let him go.

Jack Bytel in the wings as well is a ripper, Brad Crouch just came over from Adelaide and Jack Higgins can also rotate through the midfield. Hawthorn were dead last for clearances and he fits the age bracket perfectly, North Melbourne, Adelaide and Essendon were also bottom-eight midfield groups so he would be a valuable asset.

10. Dom Sheed (West Coast): Restricted free agent

Why the Eagles should keep him
The grand final hero is remembered for a moment in 2018 but his whole game was stunning: 32 disposals, eight clearances and six inside 50s and he’s had a very good career. He’s played 119 games, he’s 26 in April, averages 21 touches, 3.7 clearances and 3.5 inside 50s.

Advertisement
Advertisement

This man is a bona fide gun and the Eagles are going to be a good team and could be their last real chance to chase another flag at their best. He’s a part of their core and is a best-22 player.

Where could he go and what’s he worth?
West Coast don’t really have a young core of young midfielders so the only real justification for letting Sheed go would be getting a good compensation pick and using it on a midfielder in the draft. The Eagles have been decimated in the draft since acquiring Tim Kelly from Geelong so Sheed could be a way into getting two first-round picks (their pick and a compensation one) and finding young guns to mentor under Luke Shuey, Elliott Yeo and Tim Kelly.

It seems like Essendon, Hawthorn, Adelaide and North Melbourne are in all of these but for an out-of-the-box pick, Richmond? Trent Cotchin isn’t exactly young, their fringe midfielders don’t have a lot of experience and don’t worry, they chased Brad Crouch before he chose St. Kilda.