So, we’ve run on through 11 players to watch thus far – time to look at the final seven players from the teams I haven’t covered as yet.

So, if you’re looking for the player from your team to watch, here is the links to the first volume where we cover Hawthorn, the Western Bulldogs, Port Adelaide, Fremantle and Richmond

Players To Watch – Volume One

And here’s volume two, covering GWS, Adelaide, Geelong, St Kilda, West Coast and Melbourne.

Players To Watch – Volume Two

So, by process of elimination, that leaves North Melbourne, Brisbane, Carlton, Collingwood, Sydney, Gold Coast and Essendon. Hmmmm, seven teams. This is going to be a long one. Best get to it.

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH IN 2020

 

JAIDYN STEPHENSON – COLLINGWOOD

Talk about owing the club.

In 2019, a stupid mistake by Jaidyn Stephenson cost the Collingwood football club ten games of his services. More than that, it caused disruption to a team that was always going to play finals, and when he returned for those finals… it caused disruption again as they had to re-jig the team to get him back in.

A lot of things have to go right to win a flag. Players need to be fit and ready to play. They need to be in good form and in the right headspace to play at their best. And they need to be present. Jaidyn Stephenson robbed himself of the chance to be at his best, and to provide Collingwood with the service they needed from him. He waltzed back into the team for the finals series, and the Pies waltzed out in the preliminary final, falling to GWS.

Whilst Stephenson’s performance in both the Qualifying Final and the Prelim were acceptable, the Pies needed so much more from their potential match winner. Without Jordan de Goey for their match up with the Giants, the Pies needed someone to step up. It could have been the time Jaidyn Stephenson repaid the faith.

It should have been.

There are dozens of players with points to prove as we head into the resumption of the 2020 season, but even a young man without a care in the world would realise that he has something to prove this season if he were in the position of the young Collingwood forward. Jaidyn Stephenson should be looking at building on his stellar first season in 2018 and putting 2019 behind him, and he should start to take games over.

Stephenson showed glimpses of what he was capable of in his first season, with a five goal bag in just his fourth game. Against the Crows on the road, he was brilliant, and made the football public sit up and take notice. His speed and ability to balance on the run were electrifying, and added another element to an already-impressive Collingwood forward set up.

With 38 goals in his first season, and 24 in 2019 (in 12 less games), Stephenson has the potential to become one of the great small/mid-size forwards in the game. If the Pies manage to work it so that he is the deepest forward, with space to double back into, it is almost a fait accompli that he will get to any bouncing ball before the unfortunate defender chasing him.

So, what to expect from Stephenson this season?

What I expect most of all is a glimpse into his character. There is no doubt about his prodigious talent, but after a season where he let his team down completely in 2019, does he have the work ethic and determination to get better? Does he have a sense of personal responsibility for his actions in 2019, and the desire to make things right?

We will soon see.

Stephenson has the ability to bump his goal kicking stats, even in a reduced season. With 1.46 goals per game in 2018, and 1.71 in 2019, is it too much of a stretch to think he could nudge two goals per game this year?

I know he is competing for the footy with the likes of de Goey, Jamie Elliott, Josh Thomas and Will Hoskin-Elliott in terms of small/mid-sized forwards at Collingwood, but given his level of talent, shrinking into the background should not be an option that is entertained at all.

Look, if the Pies are winning convincingly, and he is sitting at a goal per game, no one will complain, but after all is said and done in 2020, Jaidyn Stephenson will look back and will have to be proud of what he contributed in 2020, particularly after what he lost in 2019.

Two goals per game, or bust.

 

HARRY MCKAY – CARLTON

Harry McKay missed the start of the season with a groin injury, and is one of the few players for whom the suspension of the season actually worked. He should be right for Round Two, and if ever the Blues needed to see some organic improvement from a player, it’d be right now with McKay.

He started 2019 the way you’d hope a young star in the making would, with his contested marking one of the highlights – not just from Carlton, but from the whole competition.

Averaging over four contested grabs per game through the first six games of the season, McKay looked ready to make a real statement about where his career was headed. His best performance came against the Western Bulldogs, helping propel the Blues to their first win of the season.

In that game, he dragged down a total of 11 marks, with five of them coming in the contest. He put his kicking boots on as well, finishing with four goals for the afternoon as well. Whilst many liked the work of Paddy Cripps and Sam Petrevski-Seton that day, I had my eyes glued to McKay – big forwards that can perform at that level are few and far between.

McKay would not reach those heights again in 2019, but after another pre-season, and with Carlton missing the perpetually injured Charlie Curnow, this needs to be the season McKay starts offering more than just one standout performance per season. The Blues need him to be their big, marking target inside forward 50, and he needs to reward those up the field who are working so hard to get the ball to him.

So, expectations for big Harry?

Coming off this groin, you’d hope he is not underdone, as I have the feeling he will be asked to carry the marking component of this forward six. Mitch McGovern may help here and there, but I reckon he might be playing for his career in a sense this season. He’ll still be on a list, but unless he performs at a level way above what we’ve seen at Carlton thus far, I’m not sure he’ll retain the trust of David Teague.

Harry could lead the league in contested grabs. If he does that, the Blues are straightened up going forward. In totals, he sat equal third last season. On averages, he was equal fourth.

He has already missed a game, and as such given others a head start in a 17-game season. In Round Two he will encounter the Demons’ three headed defensive monster in Steven May, Jake Lever and Oscar McDonald. Harry needs to start well and dispense with his own opponent quickly. The better he goes early in the game, the quicker Melbourne will be forced to adjust, and the Blues can capitalise on a gameplan being concocted on the fly.

McKay could be a beast, or he could also fade into the realm of those players who could’ve been a lot better than they were, be it due to injuries or attitude.

Carlton fans have suffered long enough, and whilst Charlie Curnow seems determined to make them suffer more, perhaps Harry McKay can lead them back to a place where they have something to celebrate – a forward who can take control of the game.

And we’ll talk about his kicking at goal another time…

 

HUGH GREENWOOD – GOLD COAST

Believe it or not, I was actually spoiled for choice with the Suns.

I pondered profiling Brayden Fiorini, who started the season off looking as though he’ll be trialled as a half back after leading the team in disposals per game in 2019 (25.43 touches per game). I toyed with looking at Brandon Ellis and how he brings a winning culture to the group. I also pondered the copious amounts of talent they’ve injected via the draft.

But in the end, I settled on Greenwood, who I believe is the perfect fit for a young team on the rise.

But how is he? It is an easy thing to say, and really, wouldn’t any big-bodied midfielder be a perfect fit for them?

Possibly, but how many big-bodied midfielders were available in the most recent off-season? I counted two – Greenwood and Cam Ellis-Yolmen. Part of me wanted the Suns to attempt to pick both blokes up, but that may have led to the same situation they experienced in Adelaide, with two blokes competing for the same role. In the end, both guys went to Queensland but will play on opposing teams. It’s probably a perfect outcome.

Too many times in 2019 I watched the Suns run out of puff. As the season wore on, the youthful enthusiasm that carried them early in the season had waned, confronted with the life of a full time footy regimen, and the associated fatigue.

They looked cooked, and at times they were doing all they could to avoid blowouts. Often times it didn’t work, and they were blown out anyway. They needed some experience to help guide the stars-in-the-making, and in Greenwood, they picked up a man both extremely talented, and itching for a chance to have a permanent role in the midfield.

Greenwood takes pride in the defensive part of the midfield game, and while he will be asked to win plenty of the ball, his ability to stick tackles on some of the stronger players in the game will make the Suns a more competitive unit.

Only 14 players averaged over six tackles per game in 2019, and Greenwood was one of them. He was the number one rated tackler for Adelaide, and he brings that intensity to the Suns.

So, targets?

The Suns would be thrilled with six tackles per game again. Darcy MacPherson was another who topped six tackles per game last year, and if both he and Greenwood can do that, free space in the midfield will be in short supply for the opposition.

22-23 touches is a total in play for Greenwood this season. He loves the contest and could start heading toward that 14 contested touches mark per game. For contest, only seven players were able to hit that mark in 2019.

The Suns made an astute move in acquiring Greenwood, and if he can build on the level of play his displayed in Adelaide, he will be well worth the investment.

 

JORDAN DAWSON – SYDNEY

I was a bit late to the party on Jordan Dawson, but then again, I reckon Dawson was a bit late to the party on top level AFL footy, himself.

This is year four for Dawson, who in his first two seasons managed just five games and flew right under the radar in terms of emerging players.

And then 2019 happened along, he played 20 games and became one of the best swingmen in the game.

Where is his best footy played? After watching a dozen or so Sydney games in 2019, seeing Dawson patrolling the half back line gave the indication that he was completely at home there, and whilst he was no slouch across the half forward line, I reckon his last third of the 2019 season left no doubt as to where he will be playing from now on. When he was deployed across half back, he averaged almost five Rebound 50s and six intercepts per game.

But it is not just getting the ball and getting rid of it with Dawson that stands out – it is the way he disposes of the footy. He is a booming kick, and can spot up targets 50 metres away with ease. On the run he can easily clear the congestion and get the Swans running toward goal.

You could almost see the light bulb go off in John Longmire’s head as Dawson cleared the pack with a series of long balls to half forward, and you can bet there will be instances this season where the Swans forwards push up the ground to catch their opponents out on the rebound on the long delivery from Dawson. Other teams will get wise to it, but until they do, it will prove to be an effective weapon. It might even be the catalyst for a win or two.

So, given we fully expect Jordan Dawson to be running off half back most of this season, what should we expect from him, numbers-wise? The Swans already have two excellent Rebound 50 players, with Dane Rampe and Jake Lloyd sitting second and third in the league last season. The influence of Dawson back there permanently may see their numbers drop slightly, but that will come at the expense of Dawson’s numbers increasing.

Having Dawson at five rebounds and six intercepts for the whole season would make the Swans back six a formidable rebounding unit. Throw in Aliir Aliir and Sydney may well end up with one of the stingiest defences in the game.

Sadly, I think they’re a couple of seasons away from threatening the eight again, but with the defence looking very solid, the makings of a very good team are right there.

 

MEMBERS – The AFL Ladder Of Trust

 

ANDREW MCGRATH – ESSENDON

No pressure, Andy, but I reckon you could be the player that pushes Essendon back into a successful era. Yeah, you’ll get good, solid help from others along the way, but 2020 is the year that Andrew McGrath needs to make the leap to become one of the driving forces in the Essendon midfield.

We got a taste of it in Round one, and you could see Bomber fans lapping it up. McGrath had 23 touches and had plenty of footy early in the piece as the Bombers built their lead. He had a great mix of contested and uncontested footy and was prominent in winning clearances, and driving the Bombers inside 50.

Has he arrived? Some would argue that he’s been there since his first season, and they’d have a point, but he hasn’t really made strides since then, has he? If 2020 is the year he goes from being a “bitsa” player… as in a bitsa this and a bitsa that. He’s spent time as a defender, a wingman and dabbled as an onballer as well. Now is the time to transition from bitsa to being a full time midfielder. In doing so, I can see McGrath becoming the difference maker Bomber fans have been waiting for.

So, what are the targets for him if he is to start having a huge impact?

Enough of these seasons where he hovers around 20 touches per game. McGrath uses the ball well and has the presence of mind to assess and hit up a target. As much as the Bombers have some quality in the midfield, they haven’t really had someone to support Zach Merrett in providing good delivery. McGrath can remedy that, and if he can amass 23-24 touches per game, he will offer an ideal support.

What are the hurdles to his progression?

There’s a bit of a logjam in the Essendon midfield. Dylan Shiel, Zach Merrett, Dyson Heppell and Dev Smith all occupy midfield spots, and with Darcy Parish and Kyle Langford looking to slot into more of the clearance kind of role on the team, it makes for a tight squeeze.

McGrath may have to share time in the midfield with others for a fair amount of time this season, but I am making a somewhat educated guess that we might see him as the preferred option by the time we hit rounds 10-12.

And who will make way for him? As much as it pains me to say, I reckon it is the captain who will slot into a new role eventually. I’d like to see Heppell start to work into the game off half back, but what I want and what Worsfold/Rutten want might just be different.

But if it happens, remember where you read it first, huh?

 

HUGH MCCLUGGAGE – BRISBANE

Brisbane fans are thinking I missed the boat on McCluggage, right?

Wrong. I just don’t think we’ve seen the best of him yet – and given the level he was at in 2019, that has to bring a smile to your face. At 22, he is still improving, and is probably a couple of years away from peaking.

Hugh McCluggage made a significant leap in 2019, and was so good that many started bandying his name around as a possible All-Australian selection. Of course, the selectors don’t really seem to pick wingmen to play on the wing most of the time, so that kind of killed his chances, however I get the feeling that the continued improvement of McCluggage will force them to reconsider their methods of selection.

Comparing players is an exercise fraught with danger, but in this case, I reckon it’s worthwhile – there is a lot of Scott Pendlebury about McCluggage, and that is about as great a compliment you’ll get as a midfielder on the rise. The way Pendlebury can cock the handball, look left, then right, and have players seemingly disappear from his immediate vicinity… I saw McCluggage do similar things several times in 2019, and those things just don’t happen often.

McCluggage was +3.29 in disposals last year, as compared to his 2018 averages, and saw increases in both his contested and uncontested touches. It is on the outside that he does most of his damage, however. He had 23 uncontested touches against the Tigers in Round 23, 2019 and was one of the few Lions who was able to hold his head up high following that game. That is where you start to learn a fair bit about a player – when they come up against a real challenge, and a high-quality team. How does he react when the chips are down and his back is against the wall. McCluggage came out swinging, and that alone would be enough to give Brisbane supporters some very tangible hope going forward.

So, what to expect from McCluggage this season?

He started out with an average outing against the Hawks, but truth be told, he had a few friends well below par that day as well. In his career, McCluggage has yet to hit the 30 disposals in a game mark. Surprised? You probably shouldn’t be – he is a quality over quantity kind of player. I would take 24 touches from him over 30+ from others who throw the ball on the boot and hope for the best, but that is not to say he doesn’t need to take more control of games.

If we reach the end of the 2020 season and McCluggage has opened his account of 30+ disposal games, I think we’ll see a rise in his disposal per game numbers as well. As good as he was in 20189, he still had three games where he registered in the teens for disposals.

And that’s how he started 2020 – with just 19 touches.

No more games in the teens, at least one 30+ disposal game, whilst maintaining a disposal efficiency of 70%. He was at 68% last season.

Sound fair?

 

JARED POLEC – NORTH MELBOURNE

This seems a bit too easy, doesn’t it? Maybe someone like Tarryn Thomas, Bailey Scott, Nick Larkey or Cam Zurhaar would be a more appropriate player to watch than someone who is already established as a player in the league, right?

Maybe, but I think there is a level Jared Polec can get to that he was unable to last year. His stats in the years leading up to the 2019 season were on an upward incline. From 18 touches per game in 2015, Polec increased his output for the next three years, topping out at 25.14 possessions per game in 2018. Providing Port Adelaide with a heap of run off half back, wing and through the middle, the same was expected of him once he pulled on the royal blue and white.

But things didn’t go that smoothly. Not early on, at least.

Polec had an up-and-down season with the Kangaroos. After his running game became a highlight of the Port Adelaide team, it was a rare occasion that you’d see him tuck the ball under his arm and tear through the centre of the ground for North.

In 2018, consistency was his key. He had under 20 disposals in a game just once in the entire season, and even that one game saw him amass 19 touches. In 2019, he had under 20 disposals seven times. I cannot see that being the case again this season.

We’ve all heard people joke about North trying to land the big fish and failing. Dusty, de Goey, Gaff, Kelly… they haven’t managed to secure that big name, but Polec has the capacity to establish himself as a big name for the Kangaroos this season, and he’ll do it on the back of gut-running and familiarity.

Familiarity, you say?

Why yes, I do.

Did you watch Polec in 2019? Did you see his struggles as he tried to find his way with new teammates and they tried to find their way with him? I can vividly remember seeing him sold into trouble by a teammate on his wrong side, and his resulting kick resembling more of a hack kick in hope than the sizzling passes I was used to seeing from him in Port colours. I always feel as though a player needs 12 months to acclimatise to a new team, and Polec was a living, breathing embodiment of those thoughts in 2019.

But that was then. What do I expect from Polec in 2020?

His numbers dropped to 23.14 touches per game in 2019, and I would expect a decent increase in those totals. His run and carry will be invaluable to a North team that has plenty of inside grunt, but lacks that genuine gut-running pace (Shaun Higgins aside… though he is 32 years old – amazing that he continues to get better into his thirties, huh?).

Polec back at around 24 touches per game is the minimum I want from him, and I know I am asking a bit in a shortened game. However, I don’t believe he is incapable of achieving this. The other factor I’ll be looking at is his disposal efficiency. It was just a couple of paragraphs ago I spoke about having to hack it forward on his non-preferred foot in 2019 – it resulted in his lowest efficiency since 2013. That needs to be corrected.

So, with that in mind, 25 touches at 70%+ and a little more consistency (no games under 20 touches would be amazing) and we might start seeing the second year Kangaroo right in the mix for his first best and fairest award.

Oh, and a return to the top ten in metres gained would be more than welcome, as well (he was ninth in 2018, and fell to 25th last year).

 

So that’s it – one from each team to watch as the season recommences. Who will you be keeping an eye on?

And hey, if you like this kind of footy coverage, there will be a heap during the season. A HEAP, with even more for Mongrel Members, including weekly Player Power Rankings and Defensive Player of the Year rankings. Click the pic below to join – we’d really love the support.

 

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