The AFL free agency period has officially begun, with Adelaide Crows defender Jake Kelly and Richmond Tigers tall Mabior Chol the first players to find new homes for 2022.
The Essendon Bombers finished eighth on the ladder in 2021. They lost six of their opening eight games of the season, but four of those losses were by 16 points or less, with the balance coming by 54 and 57 points respectively.
But their form turned around from there. They won nine of their final 14 matches to make finals, a remarkable achievement.
The Bombers had seven debutants in 2021, which was the fourth most of any team in the AFL this year. Resultantly they had only three players feature in all 23 games: Zach Merrett, Darcy Parish and Jayden Laverde.
To be eligible for selection on this list each player has to have played at least five games this year. Here are the most valuable five, including an honourable mention.
Honourable mention: Dyson Heppell
Heppell relished being captain of the Bombers and his new role of playing on a halfback flank as well. He had 21 disposals or more in all 19 games he featured in. He averaged the second most intercepts of any Bombers player, with an average of 6.42 per game. When he did get possession of the ball he utilised it well, with an average disposal efficiency of 80.84 per cent per game.
5. Jordan Ridley
Ridley had an outstanding and consistent season in 2021, missing only one game through injury. He averaged the third most contested marks of any Bombers player and the most intercepts of any player in his team. He finished the season with the highest disposals efficiency percentage of any player, with an average of 88.15 per cent.
4. Nick Hind
Hind was arguably the best recruit of 2021. The former Saint was a consistent performer, gaining the third most metres of any Bomber and with an average of 426.05 disposals per game. Despite playing on a halfback flank, he averaged the fourth most inside 50s of any of the Bombers players, with an average of 3.27 per game. In the one game he missed, the Bombers were well beaten by the Bulldogs.
3. Zach Merrett
Merrett had a good season, selected on the wing in the AFL All Australian final team. He was good at accumulating possessions, averaging the sixth most disposals of any player in the competition, with an average of 31.52 per game. He also worked hard defensively, and he averaged the second-most tackles of any Bombers player per game. He was durable too, playing all 23 matches.
2. Jake Stringer
Stringer featured in 19 of 23 games in 2021 and was rewarded for his consistent season by being selected in the AFL All Australian squad of 40. He was Essendon’s leading goalkicker, with 41 goals for the season, which was seven more than any other player in the team.
1. Darcy Parish
Parish was a revelation for the Bombers, featuring in all 23 games. He may have been named on the interchange bench of the AFL All Australian team, but he had a breakout season all the seam. He finished equal fifth overall in the Brownlow count, which underlined his impressive performance this year. He averaged the fifth-most score involvements of any player in the competition, with an average of 7.61 per game. He also showed that he could win the ball in the contest, with the most contested possessions of any Bombers player, showing that he isn’t just one-dimensional.