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Opinion

Your AFL club's breakout star in 2021

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Expert
1st March, 2021
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The 2021 AFL season is just around the corner. With that, comes expectation.

Whether your club is a contender for the ultimate prize or a kitchen utensil, we all have a level of excitement driven by what we want to see out of our clubs.

Global conditions indicate that we will see the AFL season clouded by a level of uncertainty in 2021, but with a return to full-length games and hopefully, nationally functional fixturing, we can focus on the on-field narratives.

Every team enters 2021 with hopes and dreams of success, or steps forward.

Here, I will analyse your club’s potential breakout player, that will take strides forward individually that will inevitably put the team in a better place going forward.

Adelaide – Shane McAdam
While many will look towards Jackson Hately and Darcy Fogarty as the young players that will elevate their games in 2021, mature-ager Shane McAdam looks set for a really strong season that should earn him a good contract going forward.

It took a little while for the 25-year-old to settle in at senior level, admitting himself that he had a long way to go in terms of fitness and adapting to the AFL, but by the end of 2020, we saw some really strong signs.

In the final five games of last season, McAdam averaged 12 disposals and five marks, kicking 6.5 and dragging down an impressive eight contested marks.

His fitness improved and McAdam worked hard to find himself at the right spots in the forward 50, looking like a genuinely dangerous proposition at the feet of some contested marking beasts.

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That consistency should be brought forward into 2021, where McAdam can kick 25 goals and become a cult hero for Crows fans.

Brisbane – Oscar McInerney
He might be the most obvious candidate for a breakout at Brisbane, but we can expect to see big things out of McInerney this season as the club, as the unencumbered number one ruckman.

The transition away from Stef Martin was a slow-ish process, but now that he has left the club, the dominant presence of the 26-year-old should provide yet another boost to an impressive Brisbane team.

McInerney’s tackling and willingness to throw his body at the opposition in central areas will be key to protecting the likes of Lachie Neale and Jarryd Lyons on the inside, given the attention they attract.

It’s a perfect fit for a Lions’ midfield that needed to move on from the “extra midfielder” type of ruckman, particularly with the depth through the middle the team possesses.

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Carlton – Harry McKay
When such a talented key forward is developing in front of our eyes, it’s easy to suggest they are ready to take the next step on a yearly basis. The question is ultimately, when are they ready for a 40+ goal season?

Of course, in 2019, McKay kicked 26 goals and 30 behinds, becoming a dominant force in contested marking and using his 204 centimetres to advantage.

Well, Carlton is ready to become a finals contender this season, which means the depth in the engine room is there.

The flow-on effect means that there are better players settling across the half-forward flank and overall, it means that the service for an exciting key forward should hypothetically, be the best he has every received.

The 23-year-old is hitting the sweet spot in terms of his time in the AFL, into his fifth year and having played 48 games, and 2021 looks like the year McKay can start to post consistently big numbers.

Look at Carlton’s Round 5 game against the Bulldogs in 2019 if you need a starting point on what you should see multiple times from McKay this season – 20 disposals, 11 marks and 4.3 in a dominant win.

Harry McKay of the Blues (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Collingwood – Brayden Sier
Sier will get plenty of games in 2021 out of necessity more than anything, and the opportunity is there for him to shed the laughable effects of his social basketball escapades.

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When the 23-year-old has played a full game, he posts really good numbers and the contested nature of his game translates well to the modern day need for an extractor.

While Collingwood has perhaps failed to keep up with other teams in terms of offensive improvement, the young talent is there to assist the midfield in taking a step forward despite Adam Treloar’s departure and Scott Pendlebury’s slow regression.

There is no doubt that the statistics will look good for Sier this season, but that’s not what Magpies fans are searching for.

If Josh Daicos is officially moving into the centre bounces, with Jamie Elliott a similar type of classy player looking to take the ball and spread, then Sier needs to both make sure he gets the ball out to them, and protect his smaller teammates from aggressive opponents.

Collingwood is up against it in 2021 and the midfield needs to be operating smoothly to deliver the ball inside 50. Sier is the key to opening the game up for his team.

Essendon – Nick Hind
Replacing Saad and McKenna is obviously a difficult task, but opportunities have opened up at the Bombers for the reinvention of Nick Hind and Ned Cahill.

With Cahill only having played three games, it’s the former Saint who is tipped to have an impact at Essendon, finally becoming a best 22 AFL player.

Despite showing some good signs in attack for the Saints, Hind returning to the Bombers is perhaps a huge blessing for the 26-year-old, given he was used in a similar role in his time with Essendon’s VFL team prior to his selection as a mature-age recruit.

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His much famed pace is needed desperately, and his ability to push up onto the wing would indicate that he could have an impact offensively.

While we can’t expect much accountability out of him, which will hurt the Bombers with Heppell in a similar boat and Cahill itching for a chance, it’s Hind’s excitement that should be a positive for fans.

Fremantle – Hayden Young
Many expect Young to not only be a regular in Fremantle’s best 22 this season, but the key distributor out of defence, which says something when Nathan Wilson and Luke Ryan are in the team.

Such is the regard in which Young’s kicking is held, and given what we saw in games against Gold Coast and Adelaide in 2020, we can expect to see so much more.

The beauty of Young’s impending role, is that he doesn’t have the pressure placed on him as the main interceptor, or the only kicking option out of defence.

Easing the burdens that are often placed on young players is sure to aid his development, and it should only further tighten a defensive group that is clearly playing for each other.

The other player to look out for in 2021 for Fremantle is Sam Sturt, who should be fully fit early in the season and secure his spot going forward.

Fremantle

Liam Henry, Hayden Young, and Caleb Serong of the Fremantle Dockers (AAP Image/Scott Barbour)

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Geelong – Francis Evans
How can you pick a breakout player for one of the oldest and most experienced lists in the competition? It comes down to which peripheral figures inevitably get senior exposure in this Geelong team and in 2021, it could come down to Francis Evans.

Evans was the classic Geelong “unknown” pick of the 2019 draft, but has continued to quickly develop his clean skills to the point that he has been featuring in strong practice squads at the Cats during the preseason.

We know that the Cats love Max Holmes and Sam De Koning, while Nathan Kreuger mightn’t be far off after reinventing himself as a key defender, but we’ll settle with Evans and his x-factor ability in attack as the man to emerge.

Gold Coast – Caleb Graham
Graham ended up playing in the back-half of the season for the Suns in 2020 and with another preseason under his belt, it’s time the Suns locked him into their best team.

Graham is a tall defender with excellent reach and timing on his spoils, who has simply needed a little more time to ensure his size is used properly in one-on-one situations.

Offering something completely different, it’s Graham who is best suited to partnering Sam Collins as the key position duo, with the latter’s intercepting ability making him more suited to the second key forward on the opposition.

Making sure the 20-year-old becomes a regular will free up Charlie Ballard, who needs more opportunities as a third-tall/rebounding type who can use his aerobic capacity to provide some nice rebound alongside Jack Lukosius further up the field.

Depending on Rory Thompson’s knees, Graham should see more opportunities and look to work with the veteran and mould his game on his teammate.

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GWS – Tom Green
The dream for any team would be that their previous first-round pick is able to develop and deliver as quickly as Clayton Oliver did in his second season, where he averaged 30 disposals and seven tackles a game.

Given how volatile the GWS star midfield group seems to be in terms of fitness and performance, it behoves coach Leon Cameron to ensure Green is given every possible opportunity for the Giants this season.

If anything, Green is the closest young player you can get to Oliver in terms of body type and strengths, with his 30-disposal, 21-contested possession effort against the Demon himself an indicator of far greater things to come.

Strap the rocket to his back and let him soar, because Green might actually be a challenger to Matt Rowell for the Rising Star award.

Tom Green

Tom Green of the Allies (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Hawthorn – Finn Maginness
It’s a little bit of a long shot given Alastair Clarkson has said that Maginness needs to learn how to play all over the ground during the pre-season, but the 20-year-old is physically ready to play in the AFL and should be in the 25-man squads early in the season.

Maginness only finished with 10 disposals in his only game at senior level to date, but he was ferocious in his attack and his willingness to work hard is the reason why coach Clarkson is happy to discuss his future

It’s likely that the young Hawk starts the season on the outer, but it will only take poor form or an injury to sneak him into the 22, and that might be all that is needed.

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Given Hawthorn is likely to struggle in 2021, we should see plenty more young talent on display to assess their futures at AFL level.

Changkuoth Jiath is the other contender for a breakout.

Melbourne – Trent Rivers
It’s rare that a first-year player enters the competition and is so consistent in their first run of games, but Rivers established himself in his first four games and looked like a polished veteran by the end of it.

Rivers is an excellent user of the ball who reads the play extremely well and takes initiative in his on-field positioning, pushing up into the defensive side of midfield stoppages if he sees an opportunity to push the ball forward.

A wildly impressive debut season has ensured Rivers a spot in Melbourne’s best team, and he is an excellent rebounding partner to Christian Salem going forward.

It won’t just be fans of the Demons who will want to watch how Rivers progresses in 2021.

Trent Rivers of the Demons

Trent Rivers of the Demons (Photo by Jono Searle/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

North Melbourne – Curtis Taylor
Taylor is one of the competition’s young players who simply needs his body to stay healthy to cement a spot in his team’s best 22 and begin to develop nicely.

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The signs were there early in 2020, when Taylor kicked five goals in his first five games, averaging 11 disposals and four marks a game in that time.

Playing as a high half-forward, the 20-year-old is prodigiously talented with a leaping ability that matches his efforts on the ground, and is exactly the sort of rotational forward the Kangaroos would love having rotate alongside Jaidyn Stephenson and Tarryn Thomas.

If fit, Taylor can enjoy a good 2021.

Port Adelaide – Mitch Georgiades
With a license to run and jump at the ball, Port Adelaide is ultimately unleashing one of the competition’s best young marking forwards on unsuspecting opposition.

It would be unrealistic to suggest Georgiades can both establish himself and kick 30 goals this season, particularly with the even spread the Power aims for outside of Dixon, but there’s no reason why the second-year forward can’t average a contested mark and a goal per game.

Realistically, Georgiades may end up playing 15-to-18 games this season given Port’s depth can afford young players a break, but it’s the potential for excitement that really gets fans going.

Richmond – Jack Ross
Much like at a delicatessen, young midfielders at Richmond need to take a ticket and wait in line patiently for their turn.

The Tigers have some really nice young talent, with young players Riley Collier-Dawkins, Thomson Dow and Will Martyn all hoping for some regular senior footy this season, but all have to wait behind Ross for a spot in the midfield.

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Into his third season, Ross has really impressed those watching Richmond during the preseason with how hard he has worked to get into senior midfield shape.

Having missed out on the 2020 Grand Final, Ross is at the front of the line for a midfield opportunity and looks set to feature prominently in 2021.

St Kilda – Josh Battle
Sometimes, clubs try to do too much with talented draftees that have shown a great ability as utilities at junior level.

Into his fifth season, we are none the wiser as to what position Josh Battle plays, having performed extremely well in defence and solidly in attack.

Ultimately, with the way the Saints have set their squad up, Battle may well be an option as a high half-forward who can also operate on a wing.

The Saints have loaded up their defence and Tom Highmore’s recruitment ultimately fills in the vacant intercepting spot next to Nick Coffield.

I think this should result in us seeing Battle play more as a high half-forward who can actually push onto a wing as a marking option, maximising his ability to read the play and his solid skills going forward.

It wouldn’t surprise to see a season where Battle averages 17 disposals, seven marks and around a goal a game.

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Sydney – James Rowbottom
Eventually, Josh P Kennedy will slow down and reduce his midfield minutes and his heir apparent, James Rowbottom, will take over.

Rowbottom doesn’t have the same build as his teammate, but he does have the bullocking, anything-goes mindset that has seen Kennedy become one of the best inside midfielders in the competition.

For Sydney to have already given the 20-year-old 28 games in his first two seasons, with a considerable chunk of midfield time, suggests that they have the belief in him to be their man going forward.

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One would suspect Kennedy spends more time up forward this season to assist the Swans with their scoring woes, which means Luke Parker is looking for a new partner on the inside.

James Rowbottom and Callum Mills will share that, and the youngster will end up averaging six tackles a game in 2021.

West Coast – Liam Duggan
After 102 games, West Coast is finally giving the midfield keys to Liam Duggan.

With Elliot Yeo still struggling considerably with injury, and the signing of Alex Witherden filling up a spot on half-back, Duggan has graduated to a full-time midfield role in his seventh season, and he looks well equipped.

Duggan’s game has always suited the outside, but increased opportunities inside the centre square could allow him to be more incisive with his distribution.

Early in his career, Duggan was far more involved in setting up goals and more willing to tackle. We can expect to see more of this in 2021, particularly if the injury-prone midfield of the Eagles follows their status quo.

Liam Duggan West Coast Eagles AFL 2017

Liam Duggan. (Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Western Bulldogs – Lewis Young
This final one doesn’t seem likely heading into 2021, but I see such good potential in Lewis Young, if used properly.

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Young should be a settled member in the Bulldogs’ defence as the main intercepting player. Since an encouraging debut four year ago, he has been used as a key forward, a ruckman and anything else that can be thought of for a player standing at 197 centimetres tall.

Young is a really good reader of the play, takes strong marks and can nullify contests when in defence, helping out his teammates in sticky situations.

The Bulldogs need a greater presence in defence, as Alex Keath has had to transform his game into that of a key defender to facilitate the quick ball movement.

While seeing Naughton moved to defence is still a pipedream, giving Young the opportunity to settle in a preferred position could pay off greatly for the Bulldogs in 2021 if the coach simply backs him in.