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Opinion

Which non-finalists will crack into the top eight this year?

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8th March, 2021
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It happens every season.

Inevitably, a team (usually more than one) goes from missing the eight one year to sitting firmly in the finals race the following season.

Over the last five seasons, at least two teams (three each in 2019, 2018 and 2017) have catapulted from the bottom ten to the top eight. Of the 13 teams to make this leap, just over half (seven) have shot right into the top four.

In part two of my four-part 2021 AFL season preview series, I’ll take a look at last year’s non-bottom four finalists and adjudge the ones most likely to reach the knockout stage this year.

You can check out part one, where I looked at which bottom four side will make the biggest leap in 2021, here.

Melbourne

9th, 9-8, 107.8%
Ins: Ben Brown (NM), Jake Bowey, Bailey Laurie, Fraser Rosman (draft)
Outs: Mitch Hannan (WB), Braydon Preuss (GWS), Harley Bennell, Kade Kolodjashnij (ret.), Kyle Dunkley, Oscar McDonald, Aaron Nietschke, Corey Wagner, Josh Wagner (del.)

I’m bullish on Melbourne and, despite it costing me a handful of tipping points over the last two years, I’m bullish about them this year too.

I wrote halfway through last year that, despite having some way to go, they were back on track and the fact they narrowly missed the finals, but had a positive win-loss record and percentage, suggests that call was close to the mark.

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They tick just about every box you want to see statistically, they have genuine guns in the midfield and a slick defensive set-up that started moving the ball really well in 2020.

The biggest problem has been the inability to replace Jesse Hogan and (the form of) Tom McDonald since they both departed at the end of 2018. Their method of moving inside 50 has barely changed since then, with Sam Weideman and Luke Jackson struggling to step up in place of the aforementioned duo.

Now, with Brown in the picture, there’s no reason the Demons can’t continue to improve and I expect we’ll see them in September this year.

Christian Petracca of the Demons handballs

Melbourne should be aiming high this season. (Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

GWS Giants

10th, 8-9, 95.6%
Ins: Jesse Hogan (FRE), Braydon Preuss (MEL), Tanner Bruhn, Conor Stone, Ryan Angwin, Cameron Fleeton, Jacob Wehr, Will Shaw (draft)
Outs: Jye Caldwell (ESS), Jeremy Cameron (GEE), Aidan Corr (NM), Jackson Hately (ADE), Zac Langdon (WCE), Zac Williams (CAR), Sam Jacobs, Tom Sheridan (ret.), Jackson Hately, Heath Shaw (del.)

Greater Western Sydney are a massive wildcard, who I could see finishing anywhere from fifth to 15th.

Last year was a complete and utter catastrophe and you have to wonder whether Leon Cameron would still be at the helm had he not put pen to paper on an extension at the perfect time.

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A team on the wane losing Cameron, Williams, Corr, a depth small forward in Langdon and two very promising young midfielders in Caldwell and Hately is about as rough as an offseason as it gets.

That said, there’s still plenty of talent on the list. Any midfield that can call on Stephen Coniglio, Josh Kelly, Jacob Hopper, Tim Taranto, Callan Ward and Tom Green is doing just fine, there are plenty of key forwards in the oven who can go some way to replacing Cameron’s output – and I really like the risk-free acquisition of Hogan – and they’ll finally have their ruck situation sorted once Preuss gets on the park.

What I’m most interested in, however, is how a team that’s been told for years they’re good enough to win multiple premierships goes when they’ve been written off for once.

It could break them, or it could unleash the beast – and I’m ever so slightly tempted to lean towards the latter.

Toby Greene of the Giants reflects on aloss

There’s still a lot to like about the Giants. (Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Carlton

11th, 7-10, 94.3%
Ins: Lachie Fogarty (GEE), Adam Saad (ESS), Zac Williams (GWS), Corey Durdin, Jack Carroll, Luke Parks (draft)
Outs: Matthew Kreuzer, Kade Simpson (ret.), Hugh Goddard, Darcy Lang, Harrison Macreadie, Callum Moore, Finbar O’Dwyer, Fraser Phillips, Cameron Polson, Ben Silvagni (del.)

Carlton are finally out of excuses and simply must make the finals for this year to be considered a pass.

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Before last season resumed, I told Carlton fans to demand and end to the attitude of honourable losses being acceptable and, to their credit, they look to have done just that.

David Teague comes into 2021 under a mountain of pressure despite being in just his second full season as coach and whether he delivers will be one of this year’s biggest storylines.

They’ve already got the inside midfield sorted, they’ve got good key defenders and a forward line primed to break out. Now, they’ve added some brilliant users of the ball who can play outside mid or on the half-back line – which should see a complete turnaround in their uncontested possession tally (a stat they finished dead last in last season).

Will it be enough to get the job done? I still have grave concerns about their forward line – even though they did finish ninth for scoring last year – and their flakiness has been well documented too.

If a genie tells me we’re getting three new finalists this season, I’ll confidently tip the Blues in that trio. If it’s only two…

Ed Curnow of the of the Blues kicks

Carlton will be a team to watch in 2021. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Fremantle

12th, 7-10, 93.7%
Ins: Heath Chapman, Nathan O’Driscoll, Brandon Walker, Joel Western, Josh Treacy (draft)
Outs: Jesse Hogan (GWS), Isaiah Butters, Jason Carter, Hugh Dixon, Brandon Matera, Cam McCarthy, Tom North, Dillon O’Reilly, Jarvis Pina (del.)

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I can smell what Fremantle are cooking and I like it, but I’m about as likely to pick them for the premiership as I am to tuck into a roast pork that’s spent 15 minutes in the oven.

They’ve got young defenders, old defenders, key defenders and rebounding defenders in spades. They’ve got superstars in the midfield and some very promising young players coming through and a strong ruck division too.

The problem the Dockers face – and I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear this – is they just can’t score.

Here is their list of forwards for 2021 (according to Footywire), listed by games played.

Michael Walters, Rory Lobb, Travis Colyer, Matt Taberner, Bailey Banfield, Mitchell Crowden, Lachlan Schultz, Sam Switkowski, Minairo Frederick, Liam Henry, Sam Sturt, Josh Treacy.

There’s a reason Freo finished 16th in scoring last season and, while I liked them offloading Hogan, they haven’t done a heck of a lot to address it.

They’re building, but I can’t see them seriously challenging for finals while their forward group is so toothless.

Luke Ryan of the Dockers handpasses the ball

(Photo by Will Russell/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

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Essendon

13th, 6-10-1, 79.2%
Ins: Jye Caldwell (ESS), Nick Hind (STK), Peter Wright (GCS), Nik Cox, Archie Perkins, Zach Reid, Josh Eyre, Cody Brand, Alec Waterman, Kaine Baldwin (draft)
Outs: Joe Daniher (BL), Orazio Fantasia (PA), Shaun McKernan (STK), Adam Saad (CAR), Jacob Townsend (GCS), Tom Bellchambers, Conor McKenna (ret.), Josh Begley, Henry Crauford, Noah Gown, Mitchell Hibberd, Kobe Mutch (del.)

Their pre-season performance against Geelong was certainly encouraging but, make no mistake, it’s back to the drawing board for the Bombers in 2021.

In fairness, the list of non-retired/delisted departures is slightly misleading given McKernan and Townsend were both actually delisted, while Daniher barely played over the last two seasons.

But Saad and Fantasia are big losses and it’s not unfair to say that the Dons are weaker several positions compared to a season ago.

Caldwell is a still a work in progress, Wright wasn’t getting games at Gold Coast for a reason and there’s no reason to expect Hind will be any more than a role-player.

If there’s anyone from this group I’d put money on to slide into the bottom four in 2021, it’s Essendon.

Kyle Langford of the Bombers kicks the ball

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Gold Coast Suns

14th, 5-11-1, 90.6%
Ins: Rory Atkins (ADE), Oleg Markov (RCH), Elijah Hollands, Aiden Fyfe, Rhys Nicholls, Hewego Paul Oea, Alex Davies, Joel Jeffrey (draft)
Outs: Peter Wright (ESS), Pearce Hanley, George Horlin-Smith, Anthony Miles (ret.), Jacob Dawson, Corey Ellis, Sam Fletcher, Jacob Heron, Jesse Joyce, Mitch Riordan, Josh Schoenfeld (del.)

Gold Coast made some impressive strides last season, but they’re coming from such a long way off it’ll still be a few years before they’re mixing it with the best.

I’m not jumping up and down at Atkins being given a four-year deal, but Markov will give the Suns defence some much-needed help.

Like the last few seasons, it’s all about the young guns in 2021. If you’re not excited about a full year of Matt Rowell, I don’t know what to tell you.

The pieces are coming together and I hope they take another stride forward this season, but I can’t see the Suns rising any higher than 11th.

Sam Collins of the Suns handballs

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

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