Ah, it’s that time of year – the sleigh bells have ceased jingling and something or other is tingling and that can mean only one thing – time to start the Mongrel Punt Pre-Season Player Power Rankings.

In its second year, I now have three years’ worth of data collated to start giving us a better picture as to who the power players are in the league. As with all power rankings, there is a clear recency bias. Achievements and awards earned for the 2019 season hold a 100% weighting, whilst those earned in 2018 are hit with a 50% penalty. The points accrued from the 2017 season receive another 25% penalty, which, when you’re looking at a player like Dustin Martin, bring his amazing 2017 season right back down to earth, at least in terms of the scoring if not in our memories.

Luckily, he had a pretty decent end to 2019 to bolster his numbers again.

So, how does it all work? Good question.

I take a host of awards, such as MVP, Brownlow, AFLCA player of the year, Norm Smith, Gary Ayres Medal, Coleman Medal, All-Australian selections, AA squad selections, Mongrel Player of the Year votes, best and fairest awards and combine them with rankings from our in-season power rankings, points for those who hold current AFL statistical records, and add in a dash of official AFL player rankings, and mash them all together. Where I can, I take the top ten for each award, but obviously, in the case of the Norm Smith/Gary Ayres medals, that won’t be possible. Those who win are awarded maximum points, and for each place below them, a lesser amount is awarded.

What I aim for is a good reflection of who has been at the top of their game for the past few seasons, with a particular emphasis on the season just past.

I’m not sure how other places do it, but I am relatively content with how ours looks. There are players who had poor 2019 seasons and are hanging on by way of great 2018 years, and then there are others who didn’t score at all in the 2018 season and have exploded in 2019 – their scores reflect their recent success.

So, without further ado, let’s start off with numbers 50-41… including a three-way tie at 50, which kind of makes this a top 52, I suppose.

 

E50 – Jack Gunston, Hawthorn 

There was a marked drop in output for Gunston in 2019, after kicking 51 goals in 2018. He was -25 goals for the year and the lack of potency from both him and Luke Breust were a big reason that Hawthorn missed the eight last season. And Tom Mitchell breaking his leg, and the decline of Jarryd Roughead… but yeah, let’s focus on Gunston for the moment.

He is on this list by virtue of his stellar 2018 season and the carry-over points associated with it. Gunston is a match-winner, capable of putting the Hawks on his back at times and powering them to a win. Look at his performances in Grand Finals as proof that he will step up when the heat is on.

Was 2019 an aberration? Or are we starting to see some cracks in the Gunston armour? The two times Gunston has kicked under 30 goals with the Hawks, they have missed the finals. If you’re looking for a barometer as to how the Hawks are travelling in 2020, monitor Gunston, and you’ll get a pretty good idea.

 

E50 – Dom Sheed, West Coast Eagles

Averaging a career-best 26.46 disposals per game, Sheed has managed to remain a part of the West Coast midfield despite being the third best midfielder in the side (at best).

Behind Shuey, Yeo and arguably Andrew Gaff, Sheed now faces another challenge as Tim Kelly hops on board the blue and gold express as they load up for a tilt at the flag in 2020. Is he the one who gets squeezed out of that midfield rotation? He’ll be battling Jack Redden to stay as an important part of the rotation, you’d think?

People tend to forget that the 2018 Grand Final hero was dropped mid-season in the premiership year and really only solidified his place in the team after the Gaff-Brayshaw incident. Of course, his Grand Final heroics elevated him in the minds of many Eagles supporters, and rightfully so.

After posting almost five clearances per game (another career-high), can Sheed go to another level again in 2020? He won’t feel the heat from the opposition, as you’d think their attention will be on Shuey and Kelly. There’ll be no excuses for Sheed in the new year – he needs to grab the season by the nuts and give it a genuine shake.

 

E50 – Rory Laird, Adelaide

By his own standards, that Rory Laird would have been disappointed with his 2019. I mean, he “only” amassed 28.32 touches per game.

What a hack, right?

The problem here is that we are grading Laird against the absolute best – himself, in 2018 where he averaged an incredible 32.2 disposals as he continuously bailed the Crows out of trouble. Whilst the addition of Brodie Smith back into that Adelaide line up eased the pressure on Laird, we also saw his numbers dip as a result. It’ll be interesting to see where Laird is able to adapt not just to the presence of Smith, but to the emergence of Wayne Milera, who looks likely running off half-back.

Laird is still just 25 years old but it feels as though he’s been around forever, doesn’t it? He has improvement left in him, which is scary. Whilst there has been an exodus from Adelaide this off-season, the Crows have managed to maintain a grip on some of their most potent weapons, and Rory Laird remains one of those.

 

E49 – Josh Kennedy, West Coast Eagles 

Despite looking a little proppy at various stages throughout 2019, Kennedy managed to somehow compile 22 games. He has, however, clearly taken a back seat to Jack Darling over the past 12 months, which led to Darling being named in the All-Australian team in 2019. More on Jack later.

At 32, Kennedy has started to look a little slower, but he is now the all-time leader in goals kicked for the Eagles, totalling 600 for West Coast alone (plus another 11 when he was at Carlton). Does JK have one more big season in him? If he can get right, Kennedy is still capable of giving the Coleman a shake. He had 49 goals in 2019 in what was a less than impressive campaign, but is able to add another 20 to that if he can turn the clock back even a little.

With an elite midfield to lead to, those who thought Kennedy may be a spent force could be forced to reconsider. The Eagles are a huge threat in 2020, and a healthy, mobile Kennedy makes them all the more dangerous. It also allows Darling to range a little further from home and accumulate touches up near the wing, which gives the Eagles a nice get out of jail target.

 

E49 – Josh Dunkley, Western Bulldogs

It was a real shame that Dunkley was played up forward for the first six or seven games of the 2019 season, because had he been in the midfield, and his numbers reflected those of his later games in the guts, the Dogs may have had three genuine contenders in the All-Australian midfield.

Dunkley does it all, adding a ferocious tackling game to his ball-winning and ability to cover the ground. Dunkley had double-figures in tackles on three occasions in 2019, adding a real element of grunt to the classy Bulldogs on-ball division.

It’s no coincidence that after going 2-4 to start the season with Dunkley moonlighting as a forward, the Dogs were able to really find their groove and play finals with the third member of the real holy trinity in the middle. The Dogs were 5-2 when Dunkley had 35 or more touches, punishing teams when they did not give him enough respect.

What will 2020 hold for Dunkley? Will he overshadow either of Bont or Macrae? Or will they combine to be the most unstoppable threesome since Joe Ganino popped a blue pill and hit the over 40s bar?

 

E47 – Tom McDonald, Melbourne

After a break out 2018, Tom McDonald looked to be primed for a huge 2019.

But that simply did not happen, and really, it took until his final game of the season for him to look anywhere near comfortable as the number one forward for the Dees. Of course, as soon as he looked like that, he got injured and sat out the remainder of the season. Given the season Melbourne had, I’m surprised he didn’t step in some dog poo as he trudged off the field in that game.

TMac was viewed as the logical replacement for Jesse Hogan. The pair combined for 100 goals in 2018, with McDonald snagging 53 of them, but without his running mate, and with their potential second forward, Sam Weideman failing to elevate his game, McDonald looked lost, and was even thrown into defence to reprise his role there.

That was actually a huge success, with McDonald notching the highest individual total for one-percenters for the season (19). With some small forwards at his feet in 2020, and a few lessons learnt over the last 12 months, TMac may be one of the big improvers in 2020.

Let’s face it – he can’t get any worse.

 

E47 – Jack Redden, West Coast Eagles

The unsung hero of the West Coast midfield, Redden is the grunt that powers the sports car. You don’t get to see what he does, but his work is done under the hood – an integral part of that engine room.

I loved his 2018 finals series, and his efforts there play a big part in his appearance on this list, but I am intrigued to see how he goes with yet more talent thrown into the middle at West Coast. I mentioned above about Dom Sheed being squeezed out of the rotation a little, but maybe it’ll be Redden that falls victim to the Tim Kelly arrival?

Redden had a slight drop in output in 2019, despite playing 23 games. Whilst his disposals per game dropped from a career-high 25.12 to 22.96, it was his inability to hit the scoreboard that made a difference to his impact. After ten goals in 2018, Redden did not kick a goal at all in 2019. A midfielder that does not hurt you on the scoreboard is one that opponents will readily zone off. They know you’re not going to hurt them running forward.

His 4.2 score involvements per game had him in 14th at West Coast. I’d like to see him get forward a little more and make his opponent worry a little more about him in 2020.

 

45 – Tom Stewart, Geelong

Oh yeah, I copped it a little from Cats fans for not having Stewart listed as an A-Grader earlier this off-season. I stand by it – he is yet to really prove himself in the finals. Once he does that, I’ll happily eat my words.

Well, maybe not happily.

Alas, it is impossible not to be impressed by Stewart’s first three seasons in the game. With two All-Australian nods to his name, he has well and truly made a huge impact at Kardinia Park, and at 26, we may be just about to see him play his absolute best football.

The preferred option for the Cats exiting defensive 50, Stewart was the number one player in metres gained and rebound 50 disposals in the game. Not just Geelong – in the entire league. Stewart has gone from strength to strength, and is just about the poster-boy for clubs to start looking at late bloomers in local leagues. Some players take that little bit more time, but are worth the wait, and Tom Stewart has rewarded the Cats with two brilliant seasons in 2018 and 2019.

If history is any guide, his 2020 could be huge.

 

44 – Rory Sloane, Adelaide

You could be forgiven for thinking Rory Sloane had a very ordinary year in 2019. I mean, with all the talk of camps, and players wanting out… the newly appointed co-captain just seemed to fly under the radar.

However, it could be argued that Sloane was almost as good as his career-best 2017 season in 2019. Averaging 24.59 touches per game and almost six clearances, he was an absolute warrior for the Crows at a time when the team appeared to give up the ghost.

I there is one thing Sloane will never do, it’s give up.

With the leadership resting solely on his shoulders now, Sloane will look to resurrect the hopes of an Adelaide Football Club looking to get up off its knees. It’s been knocked down, kicked and its reputation has taken a beating, but there is still a heartbeat. As long as Rory Sloane is wearing those colours, there will always be a heartbeat.

A midfield boasting the Crouch brothers and Rory Sloane will still be a handful, and even without the old hands like Jenkins and Betts up forward, or solid role-players like Greenwood and Ellis-Yolmen, Adelaide still possesses formidable talent. Can Sloane provide the kickstart to the heart of his Crows teammates?

He won’t die wondering.

 

43 – Shaun Higgins, North Melbourne

Get this – Shaun Higgins is 31 years old. In the last three seasons he has posted consecutive career-high numbers, with 23.48 in 2017, 27.40 in 2018 and 28.41 in 2019.

I was laughed at by several people this time last year when I speculated that he had the potential (strange to state that for a then-30 year old) to hit 30 touches per game in 2019. Well, he didn’t quite get there, but had he not been injured in the opening minutes of the game against Gold Coast, he would’ve given it an almighty shake.

Higgins continues to get better, with those lost seasons as a Bulldog perhaps preserving the rest of his body and allowing him the chance to excel in what should be the twilight of his career. Can he top 30 touches per game in 2020? Now more of an outside player than ever, his run and carry will be vital to North’s 2020 chances (I really rate the North list!) but I’d love to see him lower his eyes as he runs through the centre and hit the leading target a little more. Too many times in 2019, I saw Higgins opt for the long ball to 20 metres out where Ben Brown was outnumbered. Higgins is a smart player – he needs to be smarter than that.

 

42 – Dion Prestia, Richmond

Paddy Farrelly… it’s your boy! Paddy’s been with us at The Mongrel from the early days… he gets a special shout out here and there. We appreciate the support.

Onto Prestia.

There were some who really didn’t see his value at Richmond. When you’re playing alongside names like Martin and Cotchin, and in a team comprising names like Rance, Grimes, Riewoldt and then Lynch, it would be easy to bypass the work that Prestia does. However, as we worked our way through 2019, it became painfully apparent that Prestia was the most consistent of the Richmond mids. He was like a bridge between the superstars (Martin, Cotchin) and the lesser lights who still hold up their end of the bargain (Lambert, Graham). So good was he in 2019, that he added his name to those to be awarded the Jack Dyer Medal, as the Tigers’ best and fairest. To many, it became apparent that he was going to do so about halfway through the season. Prestia had career-high numbers in disposals and was easily the Tigers’ best clearance player all season.

Dusty may have turned up the heat in the finals, but it was Prestia keeping the Tigers warm when it looked as though they may have been feeling the cold early in the season. I guess the question now is how much better can he get? Is 2020 the year that Prestia makes the rest of the football world sit up and really take notice? He caught the eye of plenty in 2019, but as the best midfielder on the best team… he’d be pretty difficult to ignore.

An All-Australian selection awaits.

 

41 – Taylor Adams, Collingwood

We all read about the Collingwood midfield machine in 2019 and how it was one of the best groups ever assembled, right?

It didn’t quite work out that way, did it? Sidebottom wandered off to play on the wing, Dayne Beams was hurt, then succumbed to a battle with mental illness, and suddenly this collection of immense talent was reliant on the old guard to carry them (Pendlebury) and the relentless effort of Adam Treloar to generate their run.

Adams’ absence from the team hurt immeasurably. He was restricted to just 12 games last season, coming off two excellent seasons prior. He is one of the Collingwood mids that plays both ways, and when fit, adds another dimension to Collingwood with his defensive pressure in the middle.

Despite his injuries, Adams was second only to Rupert Wills for tackles per game for the Pies. Once he grabs hold of you, the tackle simply is not broken. They’ll need him to replicate that kind of effort if they are to overcome another absence by Beams in 2020 and they’ll need him on the park more often.

A healthy Adams may be the missing link for Collingwood this coming season. There are a few players that could be called Collingwood’s most important player, but with what Adams adds to the mix, his name should be in any discussion about the most important player in that midfield group.

 

And that’s a solid start to our list. Look, I am sure people will be grumpy when one of their favourites isn’t named in the 50. I’m sure the formula has kinks (this is year two) and I will continue to work on it as the years go by (yeah, in for the long haul, Mongrels!). We’ll also be producing weekly power rankings as the season progresses based on weekly statistical output – these articles will be members-only, with monthly wrap-ups available to everyone. If you’d like the more detailed breakdowns, I suggest you entertain the idea of becoming a member. Click on the pooch below to get behind the Mongrel… but keep those hands to yourself, please.

 

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