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'Historically spectacular': The AFL's most improved players this season

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Roar Guru
23rd July, 2021
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So I’ve decided to use my lockdown period productively and write up my opinions on the most improved AFL players in season 2021.

We are three quarters of the way through the season so we have a reasonably large body of work to look at when assessing the improvement made by players. Now without further ado let us begin with the sixth position.

6. Jayden Laverde (Essendon, defender) 
It might be my Essendon bias talking, particularly as I have multiple Essendon players on this list. It could also be the fact that the Bombers are dramatically outpacing their pre-season expectations, which were abysmally low.

Onto Jayden Laverde’s season specifically, he has found importance in his new niche position as a lock-down key defender. Laverde is averaging career highs for disposals (13.6), leads Essendon for marks (102), and has strung together his best season to date, reaching the most amount of games in a single year before the bye had even passed.

Laverde has strung together his best season for the red and black where his previous best was 11 matches, and has finally carved out a little sub-specialisation as a muscly key defender who can match up on a tall or a small player.

Laverde is a testament to exhausting every available option when approaching player development, as Laverde himself was the single best utility in his draft class in 2014. Highly rated talents can make something of themselves.


5. Tom McDonald (Melbourne, forward)
Trade bait one year, a vital part of the Dee’s best 22 the next. Tom McDonald has made the Melbourne Demons’ forward line his own, and in the absence/poor form of Sam Weideman and Ben Brown, he has become the number one player for the Demons.

He currently leads the Demons’ goal kicking and has been able to show his aerobic ability, being rated as elite for disposals and marks as a key forward.

He has shown the important element of flexibility that he adds to the Melbourne forward line as he can also play on the wing, where his contested marking can come to the fore.

McDonald has admittedly shown his potential in the past with 48 goals, but he did that when he had assistance from Jesse Hogan as the number one piece on the metaphorical chess board.

Tom McDonald

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

4. Zac Bailey (Brisbane Lions, forward/midfielder)
Zac Bailey has been somewhat unfairly compared to Cameron Rayner in the obscenely good draft hand the Lions took to the 2017 draft. He has often lived in the shadow of Rayner as they play very similar roles in the Brisbane Lions side.

However, in the injury-enforced absence of Rayner due to an ACL tear, Bailey has been able to put his best foot forward. Bailey is fourth in the Brisbane Lions’ side for goal kicking with 24 goals, and he is rated as above average in the midfield for score involvements (6.5), clearances (2.9), kicks (11.1) and contested possessions (8.1).

Bailey has taken the step that many expected Cam Rayner to make this year. When you consider the depth they have at the midfield strike position the strength of the Brisbane line-up becomes apparent with players like Lincoln McCarthy, Hugh McCluggage, and Lachie Neale all able to roll through the forward line and the midfield.


The attribute that sticks out to me is the ability to find the right spots and hit them hard as he did against Geelong and Collingwood.

3. Tom Hickey (Sydney Swans, ruck)
The journeyman behemoth is now at his fourth club, and he appears to be thriving within the Swans’ system. To go from West Coast reject to practically one of the first names on the team sheet at a different club is no mean feat.

Hickey is currently averaging 16.7 disposals and is 11th in the Swans’ goal kicking, averaging 11.1 contested possessions, along with 5.3 clearances.

Tom Hickey

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

He has been a vital component of the Swans’ surge up the ladder this season, and he addresses a relative weakness of the Swans’ list as their primary ruck.

The season Tom Hickey is putting together is worthy of an All Australia nod as he is becoming one of the top five rucks across the league, and were it not for the next name on this list, Tom Hickey would be one of the best pick-ups at the trade table last year.

2. Nick Hind (Essendon Bombers, defender)
He has gone from the Essendon VFL side to St Kilda, and back to Essendon except as an AFL player this time, reinventing himself from a pressure forward at the Saints to a pressure defender at the Bombers.

He has finally been able to find his niche as a small, running defender, providing line-breaking run as well as being used up as a high half forward around the ball when the Bombers have needed more creativity and speed around the ball.


The reason I have Hind above Hickey is because Hind is rated as above average across nearly every statistic and is filling a role that the Bombers lost and were in desperate need of last year.

While Hind lacks the physical attributes that made Adam Saad and Conor McKenna such exciting talents, Hind provides enough to make up for the shortfall.

Hind has been more than adequate compensating the shortfall averaging 22.8 disposals, 5.8 intercepts and 452 metres gained. Additionally, he has conceded zero goals in more than half of the games he’s played.

1. Darcy Parish (Essendon, midfielder)
I mean, it was pretty obvious how this list was going to end up. However, I do not wish to detract from the historically spectacular season.

Darcy Parish

(Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

He is elite for disposals (31.4), inside 50s (6.3), contested possessions (14.1), ground ball gets (9.6), clearances (8), goal assists (2.5) and score involvements (7.6).

He has also won the Anzac Day medal, Yiooken Medal for Dreamtime at the G, and Country Medal to sit as an outside chance for the Brownlow medal as well as an absolute shoo-in for the Critchon Medal as well (Essendon’s best and fairest).

These accolades are the indication of a player who has gone to the next level this year, and when you consider the dual position he was playing at the start of the year, Parish’s rise can be considered more spectacular.


In good news for Bombers supporters Parish also extended to free agency a few weeks back, and will be a Bomber for hopefully many more years.