The players your AFL club can reinvent in 2021
The players your AFL club can reinvent in 2021

Is a switch to the backline in Heppell’s future?

With the new AFL season fast approaching, clubs will be looking at every way possible to improve on last year - including moving the magnets.

Whether it's Jeremy Howe going from a high-marking forward to intercept defender, or Josh Dunkley transforming from inside midfielder to undersized ruckman, there's sure to be plenty more surprises on the horizon as Round 1 nears.

We take a look at the players who could reinvent themselves in 2021.

 

ADELAIDE

 

Rory Laird's move to full-time midfielder resulted in the Crows turning things around and Brad Crouch's departure opens up another spot in the engine-room.

Hately should get plenty of minutes in there, but do the Crows decide to look at making Darcy Fogarty a pinch-hitting midfielder for him to realise his talent?

Lachlan Sholl was moved to the wing with great results, while youngster Chayce Jones also played on the outside after some time on ball and forward.

 

 

Rory Laird was a revelation for Adelaide as an inside midfielder. Picture: Sarah Reed
Rory Laird was a revelation for Adelaide as an inside midfielder. Picture: Sarah Reed

 

 

BRISBANE

 

Zac Bailey will be ready to add to Brisbane's midfield depth next year.

He played a career-high 19 games in his third AFL season and was most dangerous as a small forward, kicking 13 goals.

A first-round draft pick from 2017, Bailey will give Chris Fagan more options at stoppages with his speed and flair.

Where that leaves Cameron Ellis-Yolmen remains to be seen and h emay have to reinvent himself instead of just as an inside mid.

He played in the preliminary final loss to Geelong but had 12 disposals and little impact.

 

CARLTON

 

Having struggled up forward, Mitch McGovern, who kicked nine goals for the season, was sent into defence late in the year having played some of his best football there during his time with Adelaide.

If Charlie Curnow can make a successful return from injury, the forward line may be too crowded, leaving McGovern to fight for a spot in defensive 50.

How the Blues continue to use Cripps will be a fascinating watch.

Clubs are desperate to try an emulate Richmond and use their key midfielder as an attacking weapon.

Geelong tried it with success with Patrick Dangerfield and Fremantle used Brownlow medallist Nat Fyfe as a forward often during 2020.

Regardless, the Blues must shake the side's reliance on Cripps as a stand-alone mid.

 

 

Carlton needs to figure out how best to use Patrick Cripps and Mitch McGovern this season if it is to break its finals drought. Picture: AAP Image/Michael Dodge
Carlton needs to figure out how best to use Patrick Cripps and Mitch McGovern this season if it is to break its finals drought. Picture: AAP Image/Michael Dodge

 

COLLINGWOOD

 

It is undoubtedly robbing Peter to pay Paul, but will the Magpies go all in on Darcy Moore as a forward in 2021?

It may seem a ludicrous suggestion - he is a gun defender and was the All-Australian centre half-back in 2020.

But the fact remains that Collingwood struggles to kick goals.

And that was before the Magpies lost Jaidyn Stephenson.

Their forward set-up remains the biggest issue for them.

It would certainly be a ballsy move coming off the year he has had down back.

The other dilemma facing Buckley is what to do with Jordan De Goey.

He has the traits and attributes of Dustin Martin in that he can have centre-bounce impact and float forward to become a matchwinning goalkicker.

But can they turn him into a more permanent onballer to replace Adam Treloar?

The return of Steele Sidebottom, who left the Queensland hubs for the birth of his daughter, gives them greater flexibility in this area.

 

ESSENDON

 

With Adam Saad and Conor McKenna gone, the Bombers will be looking to someone like Dyson Heppell to help steer traffic and chances are fans could see him shift to a wing or a back flank to help take some of the enormous load off the shoulders of Devon Smith.

Aaron Francis is a key defender who needs to become a prime intercepting backman.

In 2020, he played eight games, averaging a touch over nine disposals a game, and two rebound 50s per game.

But his talent is untapped. Perhaps "the Truck" will be able to reach it.

Possibly the player Essendon needs to reinvent the most is their midfielder Zach Merrett.

The 25-year-old is coming into free agency at the end of the 2021 season, and for him to recommit to the black and red will likely require a year that proves to him why he should stay.

Perhaps having a clear game plan, untethered from two competing coaches, will help that.

 

 

 

 

 

FREMANTLE

 

The Dockers have some exciting youth.

Sam Sturt has speed and booted three goals on debut before a syndesmosis injury hampered his season.

Forward Brennan Cox is set to continue his development.

Justin Longmuir is also looking towards a young midfield of Caleb Serong, Darcy Tucker, Andrew Brayshaw and Adam Cerra to become consistent, potentially match winning, stars who can control the stoppages whenever Nat Fyfe is forward.

The underrated Matt Taberner emerged as one of the pre-eminent key forwards and will be pushing for the All-Australian centre half-forward position this year.

 

GEELONG

 

This is left field, but can Joel Selwood finish his career in defence? Yes, he is one of the greatest centre square warriors of the modern era. But think Matty Boyd.

The onballer went back and became an All-Australian in his twilight at the Western Bulldogs. It might not be Selwood's preference, but perhaps it is a way to prolong his career and allow some of the Cats' youngsters step up in the engine room in 2021.

Young hard nut Cooper Stephens is one to watch and Brandan Parfitt can go to another level which is why the Giants were so keen to get their hands on him.

Charlie Constable is another craving opportunity.

It is incredible how durable Selwood has been over his 14-year career, playing at least 20 games in every season (except this year when there were only 17 games).

 

 

 

 

GOLD COAST

 

It's not exactly a reinvention, but one of the big questions regarding the Suns is whether excitement machine Izak Rankine can add a layer of consistency while still keeping the showboat brilliance?

Hamstring and hip issues prevented the former No. 3 draft selection make his debut in 2019, but the forward burst onto the scene this year with some eye-catching performances, including three goals on debut.

He was, however, accused by some of getting ahead of himself - at times trying to take the spectacular option when it was not needed.

Rankine is still only finding his feet and that experience will come with time.

The priority, although, should be on his consistency.

 

GREATER WESTERN SYDNEY

 

After being stuck behind Todd Goldstein at North Melbourne and then Max Gawn at Melbourne, Braydon Preuss has a fantastic opportunity to become a starting AFL ruck.

And with a GWS midfield still boasting plenty of star power the Queenslander could be in for a big 2021 at his third AFL club as he finally gets a clear crack at becoming the No. 1 big man.

Tom Green showed promising signs in his first season at AFL level and will be hoping for a sustained run in the GWS side, despite being up against someserious talent in the midfield rotation.

If he can make his way into the Giants best 22 then he will certainly add something different to one of the best midfields in the competition given his big-bodied frame.

 

 

 

 

HAWTHORN

 

As good as he was in defence last year, it's time to return big man Ben McEvoy to the No. 1 ruck role.

A reinvention of a reinvention, if you like. Hawthorn's forward line - once its great strength - is a serious concern next year, especially given Jack Gunston's late start to the season.

That means Mitch Lewis and Tim O'Brien are going to need to step up.

Losing James Sicily to a knee injury is a blow as it robs Hawthorn of valuable versatility.

We are used to seeing Jarman Impey playing off half back, although he did return from his knee injury in attack late in 2020.

The Hawks should resist the temptation of sending him down back again and make him the Paul Puopolo replacement as the small pressure forward.

Impey will benefit enormously from his five games back in late 2020.


MELBOURNE

 

Christian Petracca transformed himself from forward/midfielder to bona fide midfielder and equal third in the Brownlow Medal this year while Adam Tomlinson was recruited as a wingman but found a home in defence.

Perhaps the biggest reinvention next season could be Tom McDonald doing a 360-degree turn and returning to the backline alongside Steven May and Jake Lever.

McDonald started his career in defence, then moved forward with great effect in 2018, but hasn't been anywhere near that form since.

With Luke Jackson's emergence, Sam Weideman's development and Ben Brown's arrival, it might be a case of back to the future for T-Mac in 2021.

 

 

After some time up forward, Melbourne may be better served by returning Tom McDonald to defence. Picture: Michael Klein
After some time up forward, Melbourne may be better served by returning Tom McDonald to defence. Picture: Michael Klein

 

 

NORTH MELBOURNE

 

This is a big call, but Jack Ziebell may need a change to the back line.

Think Luke Hodge at Hawthorn and the Brisbane Lions.

Ziebell has struggled with injury and has not had the impact he would have liked in the midfield or forward half over the past 12 months, averaging eight disposals per game over eight appearances in 2020.

Perhaps a switch to a back flank where he can help direct traffic and use his physicality to win the ball could help the Roos as they look to inject more youth over the next two seasons. It means Josh Walker could flick forward as the second marking target to partner Nick Larkey. Jared Polec is also an interesting one.

The question is not whether they can reinvent Polec, it is whether the speedy wingman can recapture his old form.

The midfielder had a weird year. He was dropped multiple times, moved inside midfield, lashed for his defensive output, dropped again, put back in the team and then at the end of the year he was seen and discussed as a potential trade target.

His head may have been all over the place. But his strengths can be elite.

He is a prolific and hard-running playmaker who can hurt the opposition.

It will be interesting to see whether Noble can help the former Port and Brisbane midfielder rediscover his top form because the Roos need his wheels on a wing.

 

 

Jack Ziebell is another ageing star who could be better used across halfback. Picture: AAP Image/Scott Barbour
Jack Ziebell is another ageing star who could be better used across halfback. Picture: AAP Image/Scott Barbour

 

 

PORT ADELAIDE

 

Port Adelaide has already spoken about throwing Zak Butters and Connor Rozee into the midfield more often next season and recruiting Orazio Fantasia will trigger that - if he can break the nagging run of injuries that afflicted him at Essendon.

Both the 2018 top-20 draft picks will add spunk and creativity to a Power on-ball brigade that is big-bodied but can be one-paced at times.

Port Adelaide is also looking to reinvent its first choice in the 2019 draft, Miles Bergman, as a half-back flanker.

It is also hoping to move Mitch Georgiades into Brad Ebert's high half-forward role.

As a team, the Power need to reinvent their focus on Charlie Dixon as a lone, big-marking forward.

 

RICHMOND

 

Could the Tigers try something different with best-and-fairest winner Jayden Short, who has been so important rebounding off the half-back-flank?

It would be a bold move to shift Short, given he won the club's best and fairest in a premiership year, but that's something the Tigers haven't been afraid of doing in recent seasons.

He has been a key part of a rock-solid Richmond defence, but given the depth of talent in that zone, Short could be moved up one line and maybe find a new home on the wing.

His penetrating dash would be equally suited there and, let's face it, the Tigers already have a defence that is the envy of rival clubs.

The other focus could shift to Mabior Chol and his willingness and ability to shoulder the ruck burden if Toby Nankervis misses any games.

Chol has shown he has the talent, but can look on occasions as if he misjudges the pace and urgency of the game.

 

 

It would be a bold move for Richmond to change where reigning best and fairest Jayden Short lines up this season. Picture: Michael Klein
It would be a bold move for Richmond to change where reigning best and fairest Jayden Short lines up this season. Picture: Michael Klein

 

 

ST KILDA

 

It will be interesting to see what happens with Seb Ross.

With the injection of Adelaide free agent Brad Crouch into the midfield, what of the vice-captain?

Maybe he will take a leaf out of Jarryn Geary's 2020 playbook.

Ross kept Brisbane star and Brownlow medallist Lachie Neale to zero clearances for the first time in five years during the season, so his defensive work is a serious asset at coach Brett Ratten's disposal.

Maybe he could be used as a defensive forward.

Jade Gresham - whose 2020 was plagued by a serious back injury - has been open about his midfield ambitions and could push in there given the arrival of goalsneak Jack Higgins.

And what of Brad Hill?

Maybe it's not exactly a reinvention rather than a reinvigoration that is needed because the former Hawk and Docker fell short of expectations for a player of his ilk.

He did a lot of running this season, unfortunately, it was often without the ball.

 

SYDNEY

 

The Callum Mills into a permanent midfielder conversation has become an annual event but it must be getting closer to happening.

Taken at pick three in the 2013 draft, Mills has become a consistent player at halfback for the Swans, setting up play with his beautiful skills.

Sydney has started to give newer faces, such as James Rowbottom and Ollie Florent, opportunities in the middle, but Mills's composure under pressure and class should lead to him getting more time at the coalface.

Isaac Heeney is multi-talented and equally as versatile.

He was beginning to settle as a potent forward before injury wiped out season 2020.

But maybe he is more valuable for the Swans floating through the midfield or even rebounding of halfback.

 

 

Callum Mills is ready to make a permanent move into Sydney’s midfield. Picture: AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts
Callum Mills is ready to make a permanent move into Sydney’s midfield. Picture: AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts

 

 

WESTERN BULLDOGS

 

Bailey Smith is on the brink of stardom after a 382-possession second season that earned him seventh placing in the best-and-fairest.

The sky is the limit.

Rhylee West added four games to his total after three in his debut year.

He has all the attributes as a clever half forward but this is a hard team to break into.

Tim English enters his fifth season and after 47 games his best is breathtaking but his week-to-week ceiling is still too low.

But Dogs fans still believe he can be a Dean Cox-style ruckman if his development continues.


WEST COAST

 

Swingman Jarrod Brander is one who could look for more opportunities in defence.

He has one year to run on his existing contract and stayed at the club after some rival interest in the recent trade period but has aspirations to be a key position player.

While Zac Langdon - who was drafted as a forward - could look to add another string to his bow with midfield pressure in an effort to set himself apart from the established Eagles engine room.

The Eagles have a settled, mature side so it will be interesting to see if they can introduce exciting new talent as the season unfolds.

Originally published as Is a switch to the backline in Heppell's future?


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