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The Roar's AFL top 50 players, 20-11: Big Max or Bulldogs giant - who is the AFL's best ruckman?

21st February, 2024
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21st February, 2024
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The 2024 AFL season is here!

Not officially – no, the first bounce of the season proper isn’t for another few weeks, but The Roar’s annual countdown of the league’s top 50 players has arrived.

If you’re new here, it’s all very simple. Five Roar AFL experts – Liam Salter, Tim Miller, myself, Cameron Rose and Matt Russell– each listed our top 60 players as of this very moment.

Those cumulative lists were added up, and over the next five days how things shook out will be revealed, finishing up on Friday with our top 10.

Today, we’re counting down players 11-20 – the stars of the game who aren’t quite at the absolute elite level to make our top 10. Still, there are some seriously good players in this group – including a recent Brownlow Medallist and the reigning premiership captain.

Agree with our picks? Let the debate start in the comments section below.

If you haven’t checked out our list so far, you can do so below.

>> The Roar’s AFL top 50 players, 50-41

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>> The Roar’s AFL top 50 players, 40-31

>> The Roar’s AFL top 50 players, 30-21

20. Tim English

Western Bulldogs | Ruckman

Another success story for those of us in the ‘just be patient’ club, English entered the competition’s upper echelon in 2023, earning his first All-Australian jacket.

It truly was a huge campaign for the 26-year old, averaging 19 disposals, 31 hitouts, six marks, four tackles and slotting 16 goals, which got him his first double-digit Brownlow vote tally.

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His movement from the contest is still his biggest selling point, acting as an extra midfielder and providing an outlet marking option for defensive 50 exits. He averaged at least one contested mark per game for the fifth successive season, while his aggression in attacking his opposite ruck’s body added an extra string to his bow.

While I had him only a few spots lower in my overall rankings, it feels as though English has barely scratched the surface of what he can achieve. At draft time, he was seen as a spindly project player with plenty of potential, but received criticism over the first few years of his career as his impact was inconsistent and he’d be bodied too easily.

Only now entering his prime, Bulldogs (or maybe West Coast?) fans can sit back and enjoy.

19. Charlie Cameron

Brisbane Lions | Forward

Undoubtedly the best crumbing forward in the game, Cameron finished 2023 with a career-high 59 goals, including three in the Lions’ heartbreaking grand final loss to Collingwood.

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It marked the fourth time in five seasons that the 29-year old crossed the 50-goal mark, earning his second All-Australian blazer in the process

Having been ranked 35th in our top 50 last season, Cameron’s sheer consistency and high-level output was clearly too overwhelming for us to look past. He finished sixth in the Coleman Medal, was ranked second for tackles inside 50 in the league and managed a top 15 finish for marks inside 50, with his versatility as a roving crumber matched by his ability to play one-out and frequently beat his opponents.

I had him ranked in the tier below, but that was through no fault of his own, nor a lack of recognition of his efforts – the league has arguably never had such good depth of quality players and it feels right to have Cameron ranked in the top 20.

18. Darcy Moore

Collingwood | Defender

2023 was a wonderful year for Moore for many reasons, but perhaps most importantly, it was the way he handled himself outside of game situations that really elevated him to another level.

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His graciousness and class, his care for his teammates, club and the community, as well as his overall authenticity, felt like a true new chapter for Collingwood, with the oft-maligned Pies becoming a reflection of the head coach and captain.

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On the field, he remained a stalwart in defence, finishing as the league’s best interceptor, ranking fourth for contested marks and, perhaps most importantly, earning his second All-Australian selection. Oh, and he became a premiership captain.

At times, Collingwood’s kamikaze approach left Moore in difficult situations to defend, but for the most part, he was an above average one-on-one backman that McRae could comfortably rely on.

He has maintained his 18th spot over the last two seasons in our rankings, and while it feels as though that’s perhaps his ceiling, his importance to future success for the Magpies could help him break through into the top 10.

Darcy Moore celebrates Collingwood' 2023 premiership win.

Darcy Moore celebrates making it to the top 20 of The Roar’s AFL player ratings. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

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17. Patrick Cripps

Carlton | Midfielder

Last season’s second-ranked player following his Brownlow-Medal winning 2022, Cripps still managed to poll 22 votes in 2023 and led Carlton to an unlikely preliminary final, despite not being quite as consistent as the year before.

Perhaps he’s a victim of his own high standards, as he still ranked in the league’s top ten for clearances and contested possessions and 13th in score involvements, which included a career-high 17 goal assists.

The development of Adam Cerra and inclusion of Blake Acres on a wig adjusted Cripps’ style a bit: we didn’t see him spread into space as much and he looked like he was labouring when he did, yet he spent a lot more time locked into stoppage situations rather than resting forward, which helped the Blues overwhelm opposition midfields.

I personally had him in the back end of my top 50, but Cripps owns an incredible resume and will be a key contributor to any September success the Blues may have, with his best clearly ranking him in the league’s top handful of players.

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16. Sam Walsh

Carlton | Midfielder

If it weren’t for untimely injuries, there’s an argument for Walsh being ranked much higher than this.

Perhaps 2024 is the year he can string it all together, despite some more back issues this pre-season casting doubt over his availability early on when the real stuff begins.

Regardless, there’s no better runner in the AFL and there are very few more consistent midfielders going around than the 23-year-old, and 2023 was another stellar season despite only playing 18 games.

You can classify him as an outside midfielder if you want, as he ranked seventh in the league for uncontested possessions per game and 12th for effective disposals – but Walsh was the second-highest tackler per game at Carlton too, never shirking from a contest.

Walsh is another Blue that typifies the leadership trait of carrying the team on his back when the going gets tough. His ability to gut-run deep into defence late in the fourth quarter, then have enough poise to hit up targets going the other way, makes him the most dynamic hybrid midfielder in the game.

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Hopefully we get to see Walsh at full fitness sometime this year – he polled 30 Brownlow votes back in 2021, claimed the Gary Ayres Medal for player of the 2023 finals series, and getting a good run at it for a full season will surely see him in our top 10 soon.

15. Max Gawn

Melbourne | Ruckman

At his best, the Melbourne skipper is the most influential player in the league, and no one can quite post the numbers that he can.

In Round 18 against Brisbane, Gawn had 29 disposals, 39 hitouts, 10 clearances and kicked a goal; in the qualifying final against Collingwood, those numbers read 27, 31 and 10 clearances, with 10 inside 50s, seven marks and three tackles to boot. Ridiculous.

While the Demons tried to pair him with Brodie Grundy in 2023, the only way this team can be successful is with Gawn as their number one guy and fully fit. It’s a big ask of a 32-year old in arguably the toughest position to play on a footy field, but Gawn’s brilliance knows no bounds.

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I’ve always tended to rate big Max a little higher than my colleagues by default, but 15th feels about right for the Melbourne champion.

Tim English of the Bulldogs and Max Gawn of the Demons compete for the bal;

Max Gawn is still ahead of Tim English as the AFL’s top ruckman, according to The Roar’s experts. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

14. Errol Gulden

Sydney Swans | Midfielder

In last year’s Roar rankings, Gulden only even made it to the final table by virtue of me rating him 48th on my list.

But just one year later, Gulden is an All-Australian and Bob Skilton Medallist who finished top five in the Brownlow Medal in just his third season, after been taken with pick 32 as an Academy selection back in 2020. Not bad.

Often when we discuss the best midfielders in the league, we lean into hyperbole and ask ‘what can’t he do?’ – but there’s a bit of legitimacy when pondering that question for Gulden.

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He can play inside and out, hits the scoreboard, was one of the league’s best tacklers last season, and despite ranking highly for clangers – often situational – he’s an elite user in space and works hard both ways. He often topped 90 per cent time on ground, too, which shows his fitness level.

The scariest part of all of this is that Gulden isn’t even beginning to enter his prime. We don’t use the term ‘utility’ for small players, but that’s what the 21-year-old has been… and with more midfield time, the damage he can do could be insane.

13. James Sicily

Hawthorn | Defender

It’s legitimately surprising that 2023 was the first time Sicily was selected in the All-Australian team, but it’s a testament to just how good he was behind the ball, particularly in a team that has been down the bottom of the ladder for a couple of seasons.

His graduation from talented but unpredictable medium-forward to arguably the best intercept defender in the league and skipper for the Hawks has been incredible, but it’s been a steady and, really, predictable journey in recent seasons.

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Sicily’s output should be held in the highest regard and his team-first mentality, often having to play as an undersized key back, shows why he was appointed captain in the first place.

It’s the highest Sicily has featured on our countdowns thus far, and with Hawthorn’s growing defensive injury list, the onus will once again be on the 29-year-old to take more responsibility on his shoulders in 2024.

12. Jordan Dawson

Adelaide Crows | Midfielder

Alright, maybe I’m slightly biased when it comes to a guy who has been arguably my favourite player in the league since he was drafted (Sam Frost says hello), but I had Dawson sixth on my personal list, with some potential to break into the top five.

He was recruited by the Crows in late 2021 and played across half-back in his first season, with his elite foot skill making him one of the best rebounding defenders in the league. He was then made skipper for 2023, and became one of the top midfielders going around.

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Dawson’s background as a defender has helped create an incredibly well-rounded, two-way midfielder, whose size makes him as difficult to stop aerially as it does on the ground.

Only his poor accuracy in front of goal stopped him from posting 40 direct goal involvements for the year, and with the Crows on the up, it seems only a matter of time before he reaches that too.

That’s why Adelaide’s captain has plenty of upside amongst The Roar’s top 50 rankings in the years to come – if he was this influential on a team that just missed finals, imagine what he could do at a flag contender.

11. Connor Rozee

Port Adelaide | Midfielder

It may have come as a slight surprise to see Rozee appointed Port captain for season 2024 and beyond, but the 24-year old has been a mainstay in the team since he was first drafted in late 2018, and there’s perhaps no better way for the Power to usher in a new era than with the face of the club leading from the front.

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We know what Rozee’s like as a player – a smooth-moving, creative ball user and a highlights package creator’s dream. At least, that’s what we thought of him heading into 2023, when he was ranked 24th in our countdown.

Last season, he continued to be all those things, while taking ownership of a key midfield position and proving to be an aggressive centre bounce star, averaging career-highs for clearances, tackles, contested possessions, marks, inside 50s and goal assists.

Rozee worked harder than ever before to offer support to his fellow Power midfielders if he wasn’t the one winning the ball, while remaining a key offensive lynchpin all the same.

It will be interesting to see how Rozee handles the leadership tag, but given in this block of 10 players we have six captains, he should hold up just fine.

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