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The era of the AFL undrafted free agent

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Roar Guru
10th December, 2021

Last month’s national draft was the first opportunity for 2003-born prospects to be drafted to an AFL club, followed by the pre-season draft and the rookie draft, but over 90 per cent of them missed out on becoming undrafted free agents.

In the past, such players would subsequently seek out a club to play second- or third-tier footy with while they pursued employment and education opportunities since the uptake of 19-year-olds in subsequent drafts was uncommon.

However, with so many draft mechanisms now in play and every recruitment department scouring the country for players with AFL traits, the era of the undrafted free agent has arrived.

The concept comes from the NFL, where the AFL borrows much of its policies and innovation from. In the NFL, clubs scramble to sign undrafted free agents after the draft is over, often on mouth-watering signing bonuses even though the players could be cut at any stage before the following season has commenced.

In Australia, with reduced list sizes and contracted drafts, these players are now becoming popular targets for clubs trying to gain a competitive edge, even at the risk of investing in a player only for another club to eventually get him.

The northern academies are a more formalised apparatus of teenage player development, but they are still relatively new and commonly misunderstood, so it isn’t surprising to see the mainstream media misreporting the move of Austin Harris from the Suns’ academy to sign with Essendon.

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

To set the record straight, Austin was invited to train with the Suns over summer to compete for either of the final Category A or Category B rookie spots against other academy prospects and various other undrafted players, with the alternative being remaining to play another year in the VFL and National Championships.

But another offer unexpectedly came from Essendon, who offered an interesting alternative to what the Suns were able to provide, namely a place with the Calder Cannons in the 2022 NAB League and exposure to recruiters from all clubs ahead of the draft.


Recently Victorian clubs have been blooding draft-year prospects in their VFL programs since non-Victorian clubs have long been allowing underage players to play senior footy before being drafted, so Essendon will have access to Harris for their VFL team should the opportunity present itself.

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Harris remains tied to the Gold Coast Suns and is eligible to play for the Allies in the National Championships, but as an undrafted free agent he can sign with any club in the supplemental selection period or if he is picked in the mid-season draft the Suns can’t match the bid.

It is very early days, but should Harris make it through to the 2022 national draft, a decision would need to be made whether or not to nominate with the Suns, which is similar to father-sons deciding not to nominate with their father’s club or the club not nominating.


Had the mainstream media bothered to enquire with the Suns, they would report that Austin goes to this tremendous opportunity with their full support and encouragement because this is the goal of the northern academies: to produce AFL players.

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

Every player who gets produced on the Gold Coast and is drafted by the Suns is one less player they take from another state or territory, ipso facto when a locally produced player goes to an interstate club it compensates for the Suns drafting a player in that state.

Essendon is a rich club that can offer many things that a poverty-stricken club like the Suns simply can’t match, like access to medical staff, welfare, accommodation, education and, perhaps most importantly, exposure.

Austin Harris was the youngest ever Suns academy member to relocate from far North Queensland to the Gold Coast, completing his senior schooling at Palm Beach-Currumbin State High School’s AFL Excellence program and playing club footy for Broadbeach, so moving to Melbourne for opportunities is not the daunting prospect that other 18-year-olds find it.

There are plenty of ways clubs are finding to manipulate the system within the rules and the lengths they are willing to go to are becoming more and more sophisticated.

Last year, for example, the Gold Coast Suns invited undrafted South Australian Kaine Baldwin to join their academy as he was interested in studying medicine at Bond University. However, Essendon had an opening in their rookie list and offered the red-shirt prospect a year in their system recovering from ACL surgery and he joined via the supplemental selection period.


(Photo by Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images)


Similarly, Jack Briskey from the Lions’ academy went undrafted and was invited to spend the summer training with Collingwood, although he ultimately did not get a contract and moved back to Brisbane for his top-age academy season.

Essendon rookie Patrick Voss was tied to the Giants’ academy, although he decided to board at Wesley College and play for the Oakleigh Chargers in the NAB League for his draft year, subsequently getting picked up in the rookie draft where GWS could not match a bid.

Tony Lockett’s nephew Jye Lockett was another from a northern academy to venture to Victoria despite being raised on the Gold Coast, preferring to study in Ballarat and play for the GWV Rebels as well as some senior footy for North Ballarat, although since going undrafted he will now go back to the Suns’ academy in 2022.

The Suns have several undrafted academy prospects remaining in contention for a supplemental selection period contract or another year in the system with a proper season and the chance of National Championships selection, such as Will Bella (nephew of rugby league legend Marty Bella), Ned Stevens from the Darwin academy, plus locals Brinn Little and Jed Foggo.

There are 13 Category A rookie spots on AFL lists that can be filled before Round 1 in the supplemental selection period, while there are still nine Category B spots open with the Suns and the Swans likely to use them for their own undrafted academy players, but not every club can use those spots this late in the piece.


When it is all said and done, many undrafted players have been starved of opportunities and went undrafted as a result, but one door shuts and another one opens, so by the end of summer instead of their dreams being over, they’ve got all the options in their hands.