Believe it or not, the AFL is actually a well-balanced competition. In the past five seasons we’ve seen the Dogs and Tigers come from nowhere to capture the flag, and there were not many who predicted the 2018 West Coast triumph either.

We’ve seen Brisbane rise, Melbourne fall and the fortunes of other teams ebb and flow like the tides, but within the framework of a team, the organic improvement of one or two players can drastically swing the fortunes of the entire club.

Look at the influence Tim Kelly had on Geelong in 2019, or Lachie Neale at Brisbane. How about how the poor showing by Tom McDonald saw the Demons falter, or how the lack of influence of Ollie Wines left Travis Boak fighting a lone hand in the midfield?

Yep, sometimes all you need is just one or two players to step up and make a stand. Sometimes all you need is improvement from one or two key players and the fortunes of your entire club can turn around.

And if you don’t get that improvement, it can spell trouble, both for the individual, and the team.

The Mongrel takes a look at some of the players who could make a huge difference to their teams in 2020. These are the guys who need to lift, and if they do, could propel their clubs to greater heights.

 

Note – This article is comprised of ten players for the main site. The full article contains 26 players. You can access this by becoming a patron of our site and supporting the work we’re doing – thanks.

 

DANIEL MCSTAY

At 24 years old, McStay should be about to enter his prime as a forward, and if you’re a Brisbane fan, you’d hope the jump is substantial.

He did not miss a game in Brisbane’s outstanding season, but with just ten touches a game and under a goal a game, he is going nowhere near enough for a player of his ability. His 1.8 contested grabs per game were enough to see him ranked equal 22nd in the league and first at the Lions, but he often fails to convert after doing the hard work, letting his side down.

What would we want to see from McStay in 2020 to have Lions fans nodding their approval? Two contested marks per game and 35 goals for the season would be the sort of result that could propel the Lions to the next step. Anything less than that and supporters will be entitled to ask whether McStay really has what it takes to be an elite forward.

 

ORAZIO FANTASIA

Will he? Won’t he?

The off-field drama of the Orazio Fantasia may have had Bomber fans smiling when he recommitted to the club and steered away from requesting a trade to Port Adelaide, but the fact that Port was quite annoyed with the Fantasia camp (another new camp for the 24-year-old) gives a strong indication that he was, at the very least, exploring options available to him.

Coming off a season where his on-field performance was well below expectations, Fantasia may be at a career crossroads. The time to be a young forward with enormous potential shifts this season. He either becomes one of the leaders of this club in the forward half, and delivers a consistent season, or he continues to flash in and out of games and becomes a footnote in Essendon history.

Fantasia’s drop in production in 2019 may be attributed to injuries, but he actually played more games than he did in 2018. Both seasons are a far cry from his 2017 season. This season, it seems his three biggest accomplishments were dyeing his hair, getting the pronunciation of his name correct and being pinched by Ben Stratton.

2020 is the year Fantasia must cease being a potential star and make the step into becoming one.

 

MATT TABERNER

I was a huge fan of this bloke’s influence early in the season. Freo basically lost most players in their spine over the course of the year – Alex Pearce, Luke Ryan, Jesse Hogan and Matt Taberner all succumbed to injury that severely hampered their season (Ryan), or ended it (all others).

Despite his kicking for goal remaining an issue, Taberner’s contested marking early in the season was a genuine highlight for the Dockers. Tabs lasted just nine games before his season was done, but at that stage he was averaging 2.7 clunks per game. For the season, the next best was Shaun McKernan of Essendon with 2.4, then Mitchell Lewis and Aaron Naughton.

Whilst Taberner does not necessarily have to improve (except his goal kicking), his health is paramount to the Dockers pushing for the top eight in 2020. His presence up forward is irreplaceable in the current climate, where contested marks are absolute gold.

Whilst many will have five or six players above Taberner in the Freo pecking order, the importance of Taberner should not be understated. If he is travelling in a similar fashion in 2020, look for Freo to surprise a few teams.

 

ESAVA RATUGOLEA

With the recruitment of Josh Jenkins providing the Cats with a proven forward option to aid Tom Hawkins, the pressure should be off Ratugolea a little, right?

Wrong.

If anything, the arrival of Jenkins should plant a foot right in the big fella’s backside. At 21, Esava has shown plenty but has been asked to do a lot at times with the lack of genuine support for their key forward. That Geelong went into the Preliminary Final with Ratugolea as their main marking target really exposed the depth up forward.

Whilst Jenkins’ arrival gives the Cats a short term fix (I love that they were able to get a two-goal per game forward for close to nothing, by the way – great pick up), it is a double-edged sword for Ratugolea. He now has the time to continue to develop at a more reasonable pace without the pressure of being the number two tall forward, but is also at risk of losing his spot in the side unless he works on his tank and moves into more of a ruck than forward role.

2020 will see Ratugolea turn 22. Time is on his side, but this Cats team is built to win now. He’ll have to improve dramatically to ensure he’s part of it.

 

IZAK RANKINE

The Suns have plenty of young talent to choose from in terms of expected improvement, but the number three pick from the 2018 draft has the most to prove in 2020.

He missed the entirety of the 2019 season with a mixture of hamstring and hip-related injuries and could add a dimension to the Suns that they are missing currently – that zippy, pressuring small forward who can also move into the midfield and do significant damage with the ball in hand.

Having him on the park right from the outset of the 2020 season is like giving the Suns a ready-made recruit. Many thought Rankine was the sort of player that could give the 2019 rising star award a nudge, and with another pre-season under his belt, the form of Rankine will be one of the favourites to take out the 2020 version.

How well he plays next season may go a long way to determining just how much better Gold Coast can be. After coming into the league with such big wraps, and with fellow draftees Jack Lukosius and Ben King having 21 and 14 games head start, Rankine will be eager to make his mark quickly. If he can do that, the Suns are infinitely better.

 

JOSH KELLY

This may come as a bit of a surprise, but at 24, Josh Kelly needs to put together a good, injury-free season where he establishes himself as one of the top two mids at GWS (along with Stephen Coniglio) and one of the top ten mids in the game.  What he gave them in 2019 was simply not good enough for a player of his ability.

He played 18 of a possible 26 Giants games in 2019 after playing 16 of a possible 24 in 2018. In short, he needs to get his body right so that he is a big contributor at the pointy end of the season, and not just another Giant who is slightly underdone come finals time.

Kelly averaged 22.5 touches per game in the 2019 finals series, which was down almost six possessions per game on his season average. With teams clamouring all over themselves in recent years to obtain his signature, Kelly went and signed with the Giants on an innovating deal that is more of a rolling option than an iron-clad deal. He needs to start living up to that huge reputation in 2020, and to do that, he needs to come into the pre-season in the best nick he’s ever been in. Anything short of that sets him up to fail.

 

JACK VINEY

Viney will turn 26 in April. Did you think he was younger? I certainly did.

After an injury-ravaged 2018 season, many expected big things from him in 2019. They would have been sorely disappointed with the result. One could argue that Viney’s re-insertion to the Melbourne midfield stifled the production of Angus Brayshaw, who had a great 2018 in his captain’s absence.

He returned his worst statistical output since his second season in the league and had a significant drop in contested possession; a stat that was his speciality in years prior.

I have a feeling Viney retained his place in the Demons team at times due to reputation in 2019. His performances were not those of a top midfielder by any stretch, with 25+ touches on just five occasions.

We’ve heard for a while that Viney is hard at it and inspirational. That’s all well and good, but he needs to start standing up in games and making a difference. In 2019, he was more of a follower than a leader.

 

NICK LARKEY

I’ve seen the future of the North Melbourne forward line, and his name is Larkey.

When talking about other promising forwards, I wrote about their breakout seasons and how they failed to progress the next year. Larkey had a bit of a coming-out party in blue and white in 2019, with two bags of five goals indicative of the level he can play at.

Whilst many (myself included) spoke about whether Mason Wood could provide a valuable second target for the Roos inside 50, it turned out that a combination of Larkey and Cam Zurhaar were the preferred options. Larkey had two contested marks in seven games in 2019, and the Kangaroos would be hopeful he is able to garner those sort of numbers every week going forward.

With Larkey taking contested grabs, it opens up more opportunity for Ben Brown to work and get one-one-one contests. The more North can manufacture that situation, the better off they’ll be.

 

TODD MARSHALL

Marshall is someone I watched in 2018 and thought “yep, he’s got it.” Then it all fell away with a pair of family tragedies that set him back. He went home and returned to the Power to contribute here and there and entered 2019 with a little bit of expectation on his shoulders. With ten games, even Power loyalists would have to concede that a little more was expected.

Is 2020 the year he produces?

Looking at it comparatively, Marshall is a year behind both Eric Hipwood and Charlie Curnow in terms of key forwards. Whilst wildly inconsistent, Hipwood started to show signs of being able to dominate a game, with six goals against Port, and a further five against the demons in 2019. Curnow has shown glimpses as well with seven goals against the Dogs his best game to date.

Marshall’s best came against Fremantle in 2018 – a four-goal hole in a good win, and his role the following week against Sydney to give Port a genuine forward option was just as important. He finished with three telling goals that day, and looked like a star in the making. That star may have faded a little since 2018, but this SHOULD be the season that Marshall makes a bit of a statement. I don’t expect him to be dominant, and I don’t expect him to even be consistent, but what I do expect is a few games where the future of the Port Adelaide forward line comes to the fore, and the way that happens is with Todd Marshall taking marks and kicking goals.

 

NIC NAITANUI

Unfair?

Maybe, but if you think a fully fit Nic Nat was not the difference between the Eagles finishing top four and fifth, then you’re dreaming.

They are a substantially better team with this bloke up and running, and when you have a player like Tim Kelly joining the midfield, the Eagles possess three players who care capable of accumulating 10+ clearances in a single game. Yeo, Shuey and Kelly all did this on several occasions in 2019, and Kelly did it without a good ruckman feeding him. How will he fare with some silver service? It’s a mouth-watering prospect for West Coast fans.

But for as good as Naitanui is, we haven’t seen him put it together for an entire season since 2015. Injuries to that big body could do more than derail his season – it has the potential to hurt the entire West Coast run.

20 games from Nic Naitanui makes the Eagles a 2-3 win better team. That, my friends, is the difference between being a top eight team, and being top two.

 

TIM ENGLISH

So, is this the season we see Tim English stop being bullied by the established big men in the league?

Brodie Grundy feasted against English, amassing 50+ hit-outs in each contest due mainly to capitalising on his strength advantage. With the Dogs electing not to target another ruck during the trade and free agency period, English will be shouldering a big load again in 2020 and needs to be better.

Being the young ruck in a league of established big man is no fun, but at 22, 2019 has to be the last season that English gets owned in the ruck. His hands are great, and he needs to start hurting opponents more around the ground. If he is not able to get the better of other rucks in the hit outs, he needs to take more marks, sneak forward and hurt them both around the ground and on the scoreboard.

Put it this way – Rowan Marshall is only a year older than English, and he was able to establish himself as a quality ruck this season. The same has to be the case for English in 2020. That quality midfield needs some good service. If English can provide it, the Dogs are infinitely better.

 

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