Even before the excitement of the magical “6000 days without winning a final” barrier being hurdled over the weekend, piling the doom and gloom onto Essendon has become a cathartic social media exercise for many.
And, to be honest, it wasn’t too hard to find material in 2020. The Bombers dropped out of the 8 with a 13th-place finish, sustained high-profile losses of disgruntled players in Daniher, Saad and Fantasia, dealt with the drama of a dysfunctional two-headed coaching beast and, to top it off, failed to land Dunkley in a trade period headlined/hijacked by quintessential Dodora antics.
The reality is far more boring, and much less bleak. The midfield maturation of McGrath, Ridley’s incredible break-out season and the encouraging debut of the feisty Draper were big positives out of 2020. The Bombers also deserve credit for flipping the narrative on a seemingly frustrated Merrett, who knuckled down big time last year despite an eyebrow-raising leadership group dumping that looked like the precise action that would precede a seemingly inevitable trade-request reaction.
Essendon’s biggest problem is that their thirst for an elite midfield (the nostalgia of 2000-era dominance is a powerful motivator) has bundled them with too many cooks in the kitchen. Adding up Heppell, Merrett, Shiel, McGrath, Smith, Parish, Stringer, Langford and even McDonald-Tipungwuti gives a midfield number that is not easily divisible, and now we’re adding Caldwell and Perkins to that group. Establishing a far clearer onball hierarchy needs to be a priority for the Bombers this year, and yes – some players aren’t going to get the midfield time they might like, or the numbers they’re used to. Tough titties.
And there’s a fair chance that it actually happens with Essendon implementing a new system in the first year under Truck Rutten’s sole tutelage – it turns out that they had too many cooks in the coaching kitchen, too. How much of Essendon’s game-plan was Worsfold’s? Did that include the janky midfield rotations? We’ll find out before long.
Daniher, Saad, Fantasia, McKernan [trades, free agency]
Bellchambers, McKenna [retired]
Begley, Crauford, Gown, Hibberd, Mutch, Townsend [delisted]
Caldwell (GWS), Hind (STK), Wright (GCS).
As I alluded to earlier, it’s fashionable to pile onto Essendon and it’d be easy to do here. Joe Daniher is a generational talent with his size and athleticism, and losing a famous name like his hurts the soul of a proud club. Saad changes the entire complexion of whichever backline he’s added to or ripped out of, and Fantasia’s ceiling is as good as anyone’s in his position. McKenna’s retirement stings from a return-on-investment angle, as well as deepening the Saad wound in Essendon’s line-breaking stocks.
It’d be easier to do if they didn’t recruit so well.
Jye Caldwell was a massively underappreciated talent at GWS and they reaped what they sowed with his defection. Hind was an astute pick from the league’s bargain bin, played out of position by St Kilda and the Bombers will be stoked to get a ready-made replacement for Saad and McKenna with AFL experience. Wright meets a huge need in the key forward department, and could easily be looked back upon as the steal of the century by flipping a future 4th-rounder for the former top-10 talent.
Pile on 3 picks in the top 10 from this year’s draft, and the future at Windy Hill is much brighter than the social media trolls would have you think.
#8 Nik Cox – F/D – 58 avg from 10 games in 2019 NAB League
A genuine utility, Cox was listed as a key forward/key defender in draft profiles but has been training in the midfield for the Bombers this pre-season, with an eye on a wing role to start off his career. Think Brander from West Coast last year. Cox has all the athletic tools to play any of those roles, standing at 200cm and yet ranking 4th in the 2km time trial at the Victorian Combine, plus coming in at a brisk 2.95 seconds in the 20m sprint. His versatility improves his chances at an AFL debut this year, depending on areas of need, and I wonder if he could help solve Essendon’s key forward complications with both Stewart and Hooker training as backmen this pre-season.
#9 Archie Perkins – M/F – 65 avg from 6 games in 2019 NAB League
Probably better known for his pre-draft warnings to non-Victorian club that he wasn’t ready to move interstate – which no one can decide was impressively honest and self-aware, or immature and bordering on draft-tampering – Perkins’ flowing locks and ice cool demeanour ensures he’ll be in the footy public’s consciousness this season. Luckily, he has the tools to back it up. Perkins’ 65-point NAB League average looks skinny at first sight, but don’t forget that it was posted as a bottom-ager before COVID-19 ruined his primary year of draft pageantry. A big-bodied midfielder that’s all the rage in modern footy, Perkins also has experience in a half-forward role that’ll expedite his AFL debut. Hopefully his modified training duties in late-January were short-lived and we see Archie’s name in front of the selectors in early 2021.
#10 Zach Reid – D – 48 avg from 15 games in 2019 NAB League
Unlike fellow draftee Cox, Reid is your classic key defender and will be expected to hold down a key post for Essendon for many years to come – once he’s physically ready. Gifted at 202cm, Zach is simply too skinny to hold down a key post currently and might try for an intercepting role while he builds up his physique in the interim. An exciting pick for Essendon’s future, but Reid’s not on the radar for DFS in 2021.
#39 Joshua Eyre – F/D – 32 avg from 8 games in 2019 NAB League
The Bombers again invested in their tall stocks at this draft, capitalising on their NGA priority access to a raw utility who bases his game on the outgoing Joe Daniher and will start hitting his straps as veterans like Hurley and Hooker move on. Purely depth in the short term, Eyre is unlikely to worry us in DFS this year.
#53 Cody Brand – D – 36 avg from 10 games in 2019 NAB League
Similar to Eyre in terms of NGA status, height, athleticism and pedigree as Calder Cannons teammates, Brand’s specialty is at the other end of the ground. He won’t move the needle in DFS as a lockdown defender by trade and, if the pre-season vision of him contesting a one-on-one with Hooker is any indication, he won’t be bothering selectors without a couple of years in the gym first, either.
What I’ve noticed from teams with packed midfields – they think if you’ve got it, you flaunt it. Essendon was very handball happy as a side, ranked 3rd behind the two obvious clubs with potent onball divions (Collingwood and Western Bulldogs) as they shared the pill around a lot for little return – the Bombers were 14th for scoreboard impact in 2020.
And despite all the pill they racked up, the Bombers conceded the 4th-most fantasy points to their opposition, which can be put down to another unaccountable midfield’s failures going the other way. Specifically, they conceded the 3rd-most points to elite MID’s (behind Crows and Magpies) and my personal theory is that the more part-timers you have in the guts, the less accountable they are likely to be.
Do we really expect cameo appearances from Stringer and McDonald-Tipungwuti at the CBA’s to come with defensive running and pressure included? Why would Parish, or Langford, or even the odd sock in Devon Smith prioritise accountability when they’re starved for ball-winning opportunities? There’s no glitz or glamour in defensive footy and with so many Bombers trying to get their foot in the midfield door, two-way football is an afterthought. Continue to target MID’s against the Bombers in DFS until they sort out their midfield hierarchy.
Essendon also gave up a bunch of points to attacking DEF’s last year, another symptom of their lack of forward potency – they clocked in at 17th for Marks Inside 50, despite ranking 8th for Inside 50’s overall. With Daniher out the door and the unproven Wright and oft-injured Stringer left orbiting the sticks, expect plenty more opportunities for rebounding types to rack up against the Bombers in 2021.
5 IN FOCUS
1. Zach Merrett
The definition of a solid citizen, Merrett has missed just 2 games in the last 5 years and has never failed to average the magical ton in any of those seasons (which have included averages of 118, 117 and last year’s adjusted 116). My favourite part of Zach’s game is that it’s insulated from CBA’s – he can rack up no matter whether he’s playing in the guts or on the wing.
I’ve compared him to teammate Darcy Parish in the graphic below – for non-nerds, the increased angle on the trendline suggests Parish is more reliant on CBA’s and the increased R2 shows that the trend is stronger. Merrett’s low figure for both is huge for consumer confidence, especially in a midfield like Essendon’s where you don’t know where he’ll be deployed each week.
Merrett averaged an adjusted 126 over the last 11 rounds of 2020 (including scores of 173, 156 and 153) and should be at the top of your pay-up list in DFS this season.
2. Dyson Heppell
The skipper started off his career in a half-back role for the Bombers and it looks like he’ll wind down his career in a similar fashion. McKenna’s retirement and Saad’s defection requires a leadership boost off half-back and while Devon Smith chopped out in that role at times during 2021, he doesn’t have the runs on the board like Heppell does.
The runs I’m referring to are his first two years in the AFL, where he averaged 22 touches and career-highs in marks at a sliver under 6 per game. Add in inflation, and another 8 years in experience, and the half-back role looks very juicy for Heppell this year.
It’ll give him a much-needed reset too. Hampered by persistent foot injuries last year – which are still affecting him in the form of a modified pre-season program – Heppell’s body is screaming out for a less physically intensive role in 2021. He should pick up DEF status on Draftstars pretty quickly, and a 52-point average from just 3 games last year ensures he’ll be priced generously to kick off the season. Preload him into your player pools now.
3. Jye Caldwell
The great news with Caldwell is that there’s plenty of room for growth. Held to just 68% TOG over his 9 games with the Giants last year, Caldwell was used mainly across half-forward and a wing with just a 24% CBA share across the season. Essendon has promised Jye that both of those numbers will rise at his new club and, despite the small sample size, the GWS numbers are encouraging – a 75 AF average when given even a measly 30%+ CBA presence, and 71 AF when playing at least a paltry 60% game-time.
The not-so-great news is that he’s never really shown his fantasy game. Caldwell’s junior numbers were modest – he hung around the 18 touches, 3 marks and 4 tackles range – and while his top-aged draft year was injury-affected, we can’t give him credit for what might’ve been.
All things considered, I’m lukewarm on Caldwell. One look at Essendon’s midfield depth chart sets off a few alarms, and the lack of pre-season fluff or hype around Jye sets off the others. The potential is there, I just need to see the role security – his struggles on the fringe at GWS proves just how important those midfield KPI’s are for him. I’ll be keeping a close eye on him during Essendon’s AAMI Community Series clash against the Cats for more clues.
4. Nick Hind
The Bombers have picked up former Saint Hind to play a role across half-back and they should know whether he’s capable of that or not – he did it for their VFL side in 2017 and 2018. Averaging 80 over 20 games in that second year is a significant body of work, especially when you add in a couple of years of training and experience in the AFL machine since. With Heppell set to replace one of Saad and McKenna in defence, there’s another spot free and Hind has the inside lane.
Hind averaged just 54 (adjusted) over 10 games in a forward role for St Kilda in 2020, so look forward to the gift of a bargain out-of-position option on Draftstars to kick off the season.
5. Sam Draper
Now that Bellchambers has retired, the training wheels of 2020 – where he averaged just 81% TOG and 75% CBA presence – are off. Not just off; they’re packed away in the garage, or donated to Saint Vinnies, because the Bombers want Draper to be their #1 guy, and they want him to keep Phillips well away from senior action this year.
With the exception of Naitanui, the best solo ruckmen were all looking at 85%+ in both the TOG and CBA categories so, along with natural improvement, that’s where I expect a fat bump in Draper’s fantasy output will come from this year. Just being out there amongst it for longer. Sam’s best score (99 AF adjusted) came against the ruck-gifting Richmond and I’m expecting that to be closer to his median score than his best in 2021.
- Hooker’s currently training in defence under Truck after being used as a swingman under Worsfold. Instead, fellow backline veteran Hurley has been trialed in attack this pre-season, at least prior to his leg infection. The pre-season fixture against Geelong will tell us more (whether they do it, and whether it works) but keep in mind the possibility of a switch between the pair at any point.
- Ridley’s been hobbled this pre-season so Stewart has been training as an intercepting defender in 2021. I expect Stewart to be purely depth when everyone’s fit, but I’m open to being proven wrong on this one – there’s a fantasy game in him somewhere.
- Ned Cahill is another that’s been sent back to defence and looks like the biggest threat to Hind’s pencilled-in role across half-back this year. I’m not sure they can play both guys, or at least, I’m not sure that both can hold a fantasy-friendly role at the same time. Track this one closely.
- Devon Smith’s role is unclear at this point. He’s at his best when he’s tackling, à la his 2018 season where he averaged 8.5 tackles and 107 AF per game. Will be watching closely for updates.
- Caldwell’s recruitment means any respite Parish and Langford thought they’d get from Heppell moving to defence is a fairytale. The pair look likely to play part-time roles again at best, which gives us the silver lining of targeting them in DFS if the Bombers ever run into any midfield woes during the year.
- Stringer’s “more midfield time” articles were made redundant almost as soon as they were written – the polarising forward looks to have suffered a calf injury a week ago.
- Zaharakis can forget about midfield time himself – the one caveat of him remaining in this side is whether he’s truly figured out this small forward role. Not someone I’ll be targeting in DFS this year after being burned so often in 2020, outside of small exposures in GPP’s for the inevitable ceiling slate-breaking game.
- Harry Jones could easily force his way into the Round 1 team if the pre-season hype he’s already garnered gathers momentum heading towards mid-March. He claims to have buffed up from 75kg to 85kg in his time in the system, so the body is ready. We’ll see on the scoring.