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2022 AFL season preview: Can Essendon get back to the finals?

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Roar Guru
17th January, 2022
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In the very first edition of my AFL season previews, we’re going to be covering Essendon.

In these previews, we will talk about each position of the ground and how they match up against the rest of the competition, discuss depth, which is going to be very important due to COVID in 2022, and discuss the predicted strengths and weaknesses of each team in the competition going into the season.

Essendon best 22
B: Mason Redman, Jayden Laverde, Jordan Ridley
HB: Nick Hind, James Stewart, Dyson Heppell
C: Nick Cox, Andrew McGrath, Kyle Langford
HF: Will Snelling, Harrison Jones, Jake Stringer
F: Anthony McDonald Tipungwuti, Peter Wright, Archie Perkins
R: Sam Draper, Darcy Parish, Zach Merrett
I: Jye Caldwell, Dylan Shiel, Jake Kelly, Ben Hobbs

Defence
The Essendon defence is arguably the position that improved enough for them to play finals in 2021 and there’s no reason it can’t perform to at least that level again, if not improve.

The controversial position in the 22 is whether Aaron Francis or James Stewart plays as the key lockdown defender, but I’ve sided with Stewart as I think Francis plays the role of an accountable interceptor much better than he does playing as the lockdown defender and I can’t see him being put ahead of Jayden Laverde for that position.

Laverde was a huge improver for the Bombers last season. He was at full fitness for the first time in a while and played all 23 games, recorded career-high averages in marks per game, disposals per game, and raked in the top 50 for intercepts in the competition.

Jordan Ridley continued his upwards trajectory to being one of the competitions best defenders, ranking in the top 30 for intercepts among all players, ranking inside the top ten for rebounds per game, and ranking inside the top ten for effective disposals per game. He is the perfect modern defender at 195cm and will be the key to the Essendon defence for the next decade.

Jordan Ridley

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

The likes of Heppell, Hind, and Redman also had much better seasons and realistically should stay at that level again.

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The recruitment of Jake Kelly is shrewd from the Bombers. He will play as the lockdown small/medium defender against the likes of Papley and Cameron and, to a lesser extent, the likes of Dustin Martin and Tim Membrey which was a role Ridley had to play at times which didn’t allow him to play his natural game.

The issue for the Essendon defence is still that big hulk of a forward. Outside of Stewart (who can play the occasional stinker), the Bombers’ next tallest defender is Ridley at 195cm who just can’t play against the likes of Tom Hawkins, Lynch, Charlie Dixon etc as he isn’t strong enough and then there’s Laverde at 193cm who battles manfully against bigger opponents, but still has the potential to be beaten up on comprehensively.

The upside? The Bombers move the ball quick and lethally with the likes of Ridley and Heppell coming out of that back 50. Hind has the pace to break lines and was terrific last season, as was Mason Redman.

They’re going to have to continue that this season due to other areas of the ground being weak and if they can do it as successfully as last season, it’ll go a long way to them playing finals again.

Midfield
Arguably the strongest area of this team is through the middle of the ground, evident by them restricting the opposing team’s clearance numbers last season (ranked fourth in least opponent clearances per game) as well as ranking fifth for disposals per game.

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Darcy Parish was a top-five midfielder in the competition last season and at the age of 24, is only going to get better. His main obstacle is going to be dealing with the heavy tag in which halted his brilliant run of form late in 2021, but he’ll be better for that experience.

Zach Merrett is a ball magnet who uses the ball incredibly well (ranked fourth in effective disposals last season) and even though I don’t think he’s an inside midfielder, he is incredibly important to the way this team operates. I expect him to be pushed out to a wing this season.

Zach Merrett of the Bombers handballs

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

A fully fit and firing Andrew McGrath could be the difference between improvement and stagnation for the Bombers this year and I think he is their most important player. Before he got injured last year, he was playing nearly in career-best form (which coincided with three big wins) and obviously after the injury he only played three games for the rest of the season and wasn’t up to the speed of the game, especially in finals.

He is the inside midfielder they need to complement Parish and if he can take a big step up this year, it looks like an A-grade midfield.

The strength of the midfield is that they also have plenty of depth in there. Outside of Parish, Merrett, and McGrath they still have the likes of Jake Stringer, Dylan Shiel, Jye Caldwell, Kyle Langford and draftee Ben Hobbs to push through there. If the likes of Stringer, Caldwell, and Hobbs can impose themselves in this midfield during games it’ll be important to get first use.

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Attack
The forward line is going to be the area that lets down the Bombers again in 2022 as it’s hard to see where the improvement is coming from.

Can Peter Wright play better than he did late in 2021? There must be doubts surrounding that considering he kicked 13 goals in the last five games and Essendon were only 3-2 in that period. I think he’s developing later than most and will be a solid forward, but it’s always going to be a big ask for him to be the No.1 man.

Harrison Jones is carrying the Bomber fan-base on his back and as we’ve seen in the past with the likes of King and Curnow in recent years, it’s a recipe for disaster having a young forward in his second year of football as your main focal point.

He is going to be a very good footballer and could be one of the best players in the competition in the future, but I’m not going to predict that a second-year player is going to lead his team to the finals.

The other issue is the small forwards. Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti had some now public issues regarding fitness last season and even then, he still kicked 34 goals for the season which is an equal personal best and at the age of 28, it’s hard to see him playing much better than that.

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He is clearly their best small forward and needs at least that return again this season.

Jake Stringer is a footballing genius. He is one of the most watchable players in the game and he was terrific last season, kicking 41 goals while averaging 16 disposals per game. He played through both the middle and forward line last season, but I’d want him to be 80 per cent inside the forward 50 next year.

Tom Liberatore of the Bulldogs and Jake Stringer of the Bombers compete

(Photo by Rob Blakers/Getty Images)

With the lack of a star key forward, he can provide a contest with his leaping ability and when he’s on song, there’s not a defender that can match him.

Outside of those two, the small forward cupboard is very bare. Will Snelling and Archie Perkins are the other two who I assume will play in those positions, but it’s hard to see them making a huge difference compared to what they did last year.

Prediction
Essendon are going to have to improve on what they did last season again and I still think the issues that confronted them last season will do so again regarding the lack of a key defender who can stop those powerful forwards, the lack of another star inside midfielder to play alongside Parish, and the lack of an even above average key forward.

They are in the bunch fighting for the eight and I could look stupid if the likes of Caldwell, McGrath, and Jones really step up and become some of the league’s best players, but I’ve got too many doubts surrounding those guys to have any confidence they will.

It will be a year of stagnation for the Bombers. They’re going in the right direction, but it’ll take time.

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Predicted finish: Ninth.

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