At the beginning of the 2018 season, I heard a former chief writer of the Herald-Sun… let’s call him Bike Speahan, proclaim that father time had got the better of Scott Pendlebury, and that the Collingwood captain was no longer an A-Grade AFL player.

Pendles later revealed that he struggled with a back injury in 2018 that not only limited his ability to play at the level we’ve become accustomed to seeing, but also had a dramatic impact on his life overall. He got the treatment he needed and bounced back in 2019, with another stellar “Pendles” kind of year.

After another solid season on 2020, can he do it again ? And who are the others that are capable of being considered A-Grade players in 2021?

The Mongrel has gone to work and compiled his list of those looking as though they could be top-level stars in 2021 and placed them into a ladder for you to get angry about. The ones I’ve left out, and the questionable ones I add, I’ll attempt to justify, but as always, if you have a difference of opinion, let me know.

I’m happy to discuss your wrong opinions… 🙂

 

In order to give some context, here’s the simple formula I’ve used. A current A-Grader nets three points. A potential A-Grader nets one point. A player who was highly regarded, and possibly an A-Grader that has fallen away a bit nets minus one point. I’ve tried to ensure players do not cop the penalty fif dropping form two years in a row, bug you know… pobody’s nerfect.

 

1ST – WEST COAST – 26 points

Last season – 2nd

CURRENT A-GRADERS

Luke Shuey, Jeremy McGovern, Nic Naitanui, Elliot Yeo, Tim Kelly, Jack Darling, Andrew Gaff, Liam Ryan

POTENTIAL 2021 A-GRADERS

Liam Duggan, Tom Barrass, Brad Sheppard, Oscar Allen

POTENTIAL 2021 DOWNGRADES

Shannon Hurn

Very interesting.

The top tier at West Coast truly has the potential to carry them to glory, so where did it all go wrong in 2020?

I’m glad I asked.

Three names in their elite bracket spent time out of the game at the crucial time of the year. Yeo didn’t make it back, McGovern was hobbling around and Shuey was underdone come finals. They fell over by a point at home against an inspired Collingwood and really, must look at 2020 as a wasted opportunity. And 2019, for that matter.

Lists with this kind of quality don’t happen often and for the Eagles to emerge from this period over the next couple of seasons with just one flag whilst the team below on this list has three (at least) will be an indictment on them.

Moving into the top bracket this season are Liam Ryan and Nic Naitanui, the latter of whom cast aside any doubts that he couldn’t run out a season.

Downgrade for Shannon Hurn is fair enough, I reckon, In the twilight of his career, he will become less important to the team as Brad Sheppard and new arrival, Alex Witherden assume more responsibility.

Lewis Jetta’s fall from grace has been heavy. His elite kicking skills had him in the top bracket last year and now… gone.

 

2ND – RICHMOND – 25 points

Last season – 1st

CURRENT A-GRADERS

Dustin Martin, Tom Lynch, Dylan Grimes, Dion Prestia, Bachar Houli, Nick Vlastuin, Shai Bolton, Shane Edwards

POTENTIAL 2021 A-GRADERS

Noah Balta, Liam Baker, Jayden Short

POTENTIAL 2021 DOWNGRADES

Jack Riewoldt

Their top tier players are absolutely top shelf, led by perhaps the greatest Grand Final performer of all time, Dustin Martin.

But there is so much more to their team than just him. Richmond have this group of 12 or so players that can see any of them walk off the field with BOG honours. Guys like Liam Baker and Jayden Short both claimed best on ground accolades during the season and when the chips were down, they had players stand up all over the park.

The potential downgrade of Jack Riewoldt may seem harsh. Understandable if you think so – he played a sacrificial role for the Tigers in 2020, but it is not often that someone playing that kind of role gets thrown in as an A-Grader, is it?

He is now a handy option, but is no longer the dominant forward we’ve seen for years. That mantle belongs to Tom Lynch…. despite Jack finishing the season with one more goal to his name.

 

3rd – GEELONG – 23 points

Last season – 13th

CURRENT A-GRADERS

Patrick Dangerfield, Tom Hawkins, Mitch Duncan, Tom Stewart, Sam Menegola, Cam Guthrie, Mark Blicavs, Jeremy Cameron

POTENTIAL 2021 A-GRADERS

Brandan Parfitt

POTENTIAL 2021 DOWNGRADES

Joel Selwood

The Cats got a significant boost from the pairing of Cam Guthrie and Sam Menegola, whose elevated play gave their midfield a much-needed lift. Add in there the ball use of Mitch Duncan and the Cats looked dangerous heading forward.

Speaking of which, the addition of Jeremy Cameron gives Geelong the last two Coleman Medal winners playing side by side. That has to be a scary proposition for defences, with Cameron more likely to lead further up the ground and double back, whilst Hawkins plays a more stay-at-home role.

Parfitt was close to an elevation into the top bracket. I thought he was outstanding in 2020, with the defensive side of his game really developing, No wonder GWS were so keen on him as part of the initial Cameron-trade discussions.

Finally, the downgrade of Selwood… it hurts me to say it, but he is in the twilight now and as great a warrior as he has been, he is now in a backseat in that midfield.

 

4th – PORT ADELAIDE – 22 points

Last season – 14th

CURRENT A-GRADERS

Travis Boak, Robbie Gray, Charlie Dixon, Tom Jonas, Ollie Wines

POTENTIAL 2021 A-GRADERS

Connor Rozee, Xavier Duursma, Zak Butters, Dan Houston, Darcy Byrne-Jones, Sam Powell-Pepper, Karl Amon

POTENTIAL 2021 DOWNGRADES

Zip

So, is the fact that the first three names in the top bracket are all 30+ years old?

Look, it could be if it were not for the plethora of young blokes knocking on the door of the A-Grade list. I did think DBJ’s elevation to All-Australian status was a tad premature, but the talent is definitely there and with Rozee and Butters almost certainties to be elevated at some point, it’s not too much of a worry.

Sam Powell-Pepper is the interesting one, for mine. He is consistently inconsistent in terms of his output, flashing in and out of games. If he was able to put it all together for four quarters more often, his influence would be huge.

Huge return to form from Ollie Wines after season he’d rather forget in 2019, and his two finals in 2020 gave an indication that he is well and truly up for the fight.

No downgrades? Well, with Justin Westhoff hanging the boots up, it doesn’t leave many on the downward slope.

No Todd Marshall in the potential A-Graders? Nup… been waiting a while and he hasn’t made the step just yet. Needs a solid season and consistent form as the back-up for Dixon. Ditto Georgiades.

 

5th – COLLINGWOOD – 19 points

Last season – 4th

CURRENT A-GRADERS

Brodie Grundy, Darcy Moore, Steele Sidebottom, Scott Pendlebury, Jeremy Howe

POTENTIAL 2021 A-GRADERS

Jordan de Goey, Jack Crisp, Brayden Maynard, Josh Daicos

POTENTIAL 2021 DOWNGRADES

Zilch

No potential downgrades at Collingwood, but I was tempted to throw both Will Hoskin-Elliott and Josh Thomas’ names in the mix. I didn’t, due to the fact that neither have threatened to crack the A-Grade bracket at any point of their careers.

No de Goey in the top bracket, either? Nup – I often think the title “superstar” is bestowed upon blokes a little too early, and de Goey is example number one of this. Played ten games and kicked 14 goals… meh.

Pendles retains his A-Grade status for another season… sorry Bike Speahan, whilst Steele Sidebottom is probably fortunate to hold onto his place after a season he’d rather forget. Taylor Adams probably closest to muscling his way in.

The Magpie defence looks as though it could actually hold this team together, going forward. Moore and Howe make the top bracket, with Crisp and Maynard quite capable of getting there as well.

 

6th – BRISBANE – 18 points

Last season – 6th

CURRENT A-GRADERS

Lachie Neale, Dayne Zorko, Harris Andrews, Charlie Cameron, Hugh McCluggage, Daniel Rich

POTENTIAL 2021 A-GRADERS

Eric Hipwood, Cam Rayner, Joe Daniher, Zac Bailey

POTENTIAL 2021 DOWNGRADES

Daniel McStay, Mitch Robinson

McCluggage makes the leap into the elite bracket and may have a bracket all of his own if he learns to kick straight at goal. He finished with 8.21 for the year and if that is reversed, he is your AA wingman.

The form of Daniel Rich at half back was wonderful in 2020. I was wondering who would be able to fill the role left by Luke Hodge, but it seems that Rich’s time working with ‘The General’ allowed him to learn a few more tricks. I actually expected Alex Witherden to be the one to stepo into Hodge’s boots, but I guess some players step up and some step aside.

Daniel McStay as the potential downgrade is a no-brainer. He was atrocious in the finals and with Joe Daniher incoming, only injury sees him in the best-22 from this point. I thought he may have been put on the table as trade bait, but the Lions are obviously a little worried about Daniher’s durability.

Rayner and Hipwood remain in the “potential” section, but it is the addition of Zac Bailey that intrigues me. He has the ability to become an elite player, but I reckon our second downgrade will have to step aside in order for him to do that. Robbo is no longer guaranteed that spot on the wing.

 

 

7th – WESTERN BULLDOGS – 16 points

Last season – 12th

CURRENT A-GRADERS

Marcus Bontempelli, Jack Macrae, Aaron Naughton, Lachie Hunter, Caleb Daniel

POTENTIAL 2021 A-GRADERS

Josh Dunkley, Bailey Smith, Adam Treloar, Bailey Williams, Alex Keath,

POTENTIAL 2021 DOWNGRADES

Jason Johannisen, Josh Bruce

There’s some quality in that midfield, huh?

I’ve refrained from adding Dunkley into the A-Grade mix as he had a season he’d rather forget as a forward/ruck and I also opted not to have Treloar go straight in as well. He may take a little time to find his feet at a new team, particularly with so many others vying for meaningful time in the guts.

Lachie Hunter as an elite might surprise a few, however his form on th wing for the Dogs was excellent in 2020 and he has the potential to be All-Australian in that role… if the selectors actually start selecting wingmen.

Johanissen has now been bumped down the list of defenders in terms of importance to the Dogs. B Williams and Caleb Daniel both play roles more important to the team than he does. Hell, I’d take Crozier over him as well, whilst Alex Keath had a really solid first year at the Kennel.

 

8th – SYDNEY – 16 points

Last season- 9th

CURRENT A-GRADERS

Dane Rampe, Luke Parker, Tom Papley, Jake Lloyd

POTENTIAL 2021 A-GRADERS

Isaac Heeney, Nick Blakey, Callum Mills, Jordan Dawson, James Rowbottom, Will Hayward, Ollie Florent, Justin McInerney

POTENTIAL 2021 DOWNGRADES

Lance Franklin, Josh Kennedy

A little surprising, but their young brigade coming through is the nucleus that will see the Swans once again rise up the ladder over the next few seasons. Heeney, Mills and Rowbottom are all potential A-Graders by the end of 2021, injury permitting in some cases, whilst others have the ability but could go either way. Their progression will depend largely on work ethic.

Some might raise their eyebrows at the inclusion of Jake Lloyd in the A-Grade bracket. Every team has their whipping boy, and Lloyd was Sydney’s for a while but with a second Bob Skilton Medal, that crap can now be cut right out. He stepped up in a big way after the Rampe injury.

Speaking of Rampe  – what a player. Perhaps the most underrated defender in the league, whilst Papley was frontrunner for the Coleman at one stage and Parker had another very solid season.

The downgrade of Buddy… you had to see that coming, right? As for JPK… it has to happen at some stage, and I think we’ll see him take on a mentoring role as he enters his last couple of seasons.

 

9th – ST KILDA – 15 points

Last season – 8th

CURRENT A-GRADERS

Jade Gresham, Rowan Marshall, Jack Steele, Dan Butler

POTENTIAL 2021 A-GRADERS

Dougal Howard, Nick Coffield, Max King, Ben Long, Brad Crouch

POTENTIAL 2021 DOWNGRADES

Brad Hill

Some idiot laughed at me 12 months ago when I said Rowan Marshall would be an A-Grader. It’s funny how things like that stick with you – I’d like to chat to him now.

Jack Steele made the huge leap in 2020 to become an Elliot Yeo-like player and was recognised by the coaches for his two-way game. The addition of Brad Crouch should ease the load on him a little, which could see Steele elevate his game further.

Dan Butler’s career renaissance has been wonderful to behold. Absolutely robbed of an AA berth in 2020.

The potential of Max King is undeniable, but a couple of these additions may raise an eyebrow or three. Ben Long? I love his game  – aggressive, hard at it and has clean hands. Then there’s Dougal – really settled into the key defensive post as the season played out and seems to be the man who will control that back six. Coffield may be the pick of the bunch – an elite interceptor already, his development will hold the Saints in good stead.

The downgrade? Brad Hill was one of the biggest disappointments of 2020. Could not get into the game and even had his coach blaming his teammates for his lacklustre performances. I’m not buying that – Brad Hill is responsible for Brad Hill, and if he wants to be taken seriously as one of the game’s best wingmen, he needs to shoulder that responsibility, himself.

 

10th – GOLD COAST – 14 points

Last season – 17th

CURRENT A-GRADERS

Matt Rowell, Hugh Greenwood

POTENTIAL 2021 A-GRADERS

Ben King, Izak Rankine, Ben Ainsworth, Jack Lukosius, Charlie Ballard, Noah Anderson, Lachie Weller, Wil Powell, Connor Budarick

POTENTIAL 2021 DOWNGRADES

Jarrod Harbrow

Look at those potential A-Graders… Gold Coast is now STACKED!

Rowell immediately jumps into the top bracket, with three consecutive games drawing three votes in the Brownlow and ten coaches’ votes. How good could his first season have been if not for injury?

Hugh Greenwood’s inside presence meant the world to the Suns. He was ranked number one in the game for tackles and fifth in contested touches. What a recruit he was for the Suns.

Harbrow was exposed several times in 2020. Looked panicked in defence and hacked the footy in a game that requires precision. Looking at this Suns line up, I am not sure he’ll be best 22 come the halfway point of the season.

Some will pick up on Jarrod Witts not being on the list. I think he has been a wonderful servant of the club, but he doesn’t dominate games like Gawn/Nic Nat.

 

11th – CARLTON – 13 points

Last season – 18th

CURRENT A-GRADERS

Patrick Cripps, Sam Walsh, Sam Docherty, Jacob Weitering

POTENTIAL 2021 A-GRADERS

Harry McKay, Liam Jones, Jack Martin, Adam Saad, Zac Williams

POTENTIAL 2021 DOWNGRADES

Charlie Curnow, Eddie Betts

Walsh has made the jump into the top bracket. Playing outside, it took him a month of footy to really warm into the role, but by the end of the season, he was obviously doing enough to shut his critics right up.

The return of Sam Docherty caused nightmares early in the season, causing adjustments from opponents across the board, whilst Jacob Weitering’s continued defensive development had many Blues fans smiling.

Having Liam Jones in the “potential” category will have several who don’t actually watch Carlton chuckling. He did some really heavy lifting for the Blues in 2020. If you don’t think he belongs there, I’m not sure you appreciate good defensive play.

Charlie Curnow is a huge worry, with four knee injuries in 12 months and I reckon Eddie is just about cooked. I’m surprised he got another run, actually.

Any of Saad, Williams, McKay and Martin could easily be A-Graders, but I am reserving judgment to see how they go in 2021. No use jumping the gun, particularly on Williams who is expected to play a completely different role to the one we’re used to seeing from him.

 

12th – FREMANTLE – 13 points

Last season – 7th

CURRENT A-GRADERS

Nat Fyfe, Luke Ryan, Michael Walters, Matt Taberner

POTENTIAL 2021 A-GRADERS

Andrew Brayshaw, Adam Cerra, Caleb Serong

POTENTIAL 2021 DOWNGRADES

Alex Pearce

Freo are in a precarious position, here. Two of those three in the “potential” bracket are out of contract after 2021. Re-signing them must be their absolute priority as their entire build relies on that kind of talent committing to the club.

Luke Ryan was our 2020 defender of the year after an amazing performance. His efforts in securing the defence landed him his first Doig Medal, whilst Matt Taberner did all the things Charlie Dixon did at Port Adelaide but got a fraction of the credit for it. He is one of the best marking forwards in the game.

The oft-injured Alex Pearce is at the crossroads as we enter 2021. His last two seasons, despite a promising start to 2019, have been wasted. Both he and Joel Hamling MUST stay on the park to allow Freo the improvement they need to contend for finals in 2021.

 

13th – GREATER WESTERN SYDNEY – 13 points

Last season – 3rd

CURRENT A-GRADERS

Lachie Whitfield, Stephen Coniglio, Nick Haynes, Toby Greene

POTENTIAL 2021 A-GRADERS

Tim Taranto, Jacob Hopper, Josh Kelly, Tom Green, Jake Riccardi, Brent Daniels, Lachie Ash

POTENTIAL 2021 DOWNGRADES

Phil Davis, Josh Kelly, Callan Ward

I might be a little harsh on Josh Kelly at times – I reckon that’s because he has the potential to be so much better, but he has been nowhere near his 2017 form, and quite simply, it is not good enough.

Phil Davis is entering the twilight of his career, as is Cal Ward.

Here’s a wild idea – how about Leon Cameron put some players in positions and allow them to grow into the role. Lachie Whitfield seems to be doing that off the half back flank – leave him there now!

Players like Whitfield, Kelly, Harry Perryman and Stephen Coniglio were played forward, back, on the wing… I’m surprised he didn’t throw one into the ruck (could have been better than Sam Jacobs).

Taranto’s injury slowed his progress, and Jacob Hopper is one of the more underrated inside mids in the business. I think we’ll see a lot more of Tom Green in 2021 whilst Jake Riccardi attacks the footy exactly the way you’d want a young key forward to.

 

14th – NORTH MELBOURNE – 13 points

Last season – 5th

CURRENT A-GRADERS

Ben Cunnington, Robbie Tarrant (edit – I missed Todd Goldstein here. Adjusted total = 16 for North which would have moved them up the list significantly. Apologies)

POTENTIAL 2021 A-GRADERS

Nick Larkey, Cam Zurhaar, Jy Simpkin, Tarryn Thomas, Luke Davies-Uniacke, Curtis Taylor, Jaidyn Stephenson

POTENTIAL 2021 DOWNGRADES

None

They had an A-Grade exodus, with both Ben Brown and Shaun Higgins both departing, leaving Ben Cunnington, who suffered through injury in 2020 and Robbie Tarrant as their only established A-Graders.

That said, I love their young talent coming through. North were really lacking a small forward in 2020 and the addition of Jaidyn Stephenson is a godsend, assuming he can recapture his form. He and Curtis Taylor will add plenty as a forward half duo and if either of Larkey or Zurhaar can elevate their game, North could be very potent up forward. I expect Tarryn Thomas to split time before forward and midfield as well

Jy Simpkin could be the most logical to make the next step, but watching him, he really needs to get some help. A fit Cunnington draws the heat, which should see Simpkin obtain some more freedom, whilst LDU showed plenty to suggest he’ll be a star as well.

I resisted adding Jared Polec to potential downgrades as I reckon he may do a hell of a lot better under David Noble than he did under Rhyce Shaw – bit of a personality clash there, I reckon.

 

15th – MELBOURNE – 12 points

Last season – 15th

CURRENT A-GRADERS

Clayton Oliver, Max Gawn, Christian Petracca, Steven May

POTENTIAL 2021 A-GRADERS

Bayley Fritsch, Jake Lever, Jake Melksham, Ben Brown

POTENTIAL 2021 DOWNGRADES

Angus Brayshaw, Tom McDonald

Yep, Brayshaw is no longer anywhere near either of the top brackets. What a fall from grace. Both he and Tom McDonald peaked in 2018 and we’ve heard bugger all from them since.

The addition of Ben Brown will be interesting, as the Dees struggle to hit targets inside 50. He may straighten them up a little, but if they’re just bombing it in and hoping, Brown may find himself in the same situation he was in at north in the first half of 2020, contending in packs without the strength to win contests.

The emergence of Christian Petracca as the man at Melbourne was long overdue, and despite Steven May coming along with him into the top bracket, the Dees failed to capitalise on their young star having a career-season.

After a couple of seasons recovering from a knee injury, Jake Lever looks as though he is now ready to join may in the top bracket.

 

16th – ESSENDON – 7 points

Last season – 16th

CURRENT A-GRADERS

Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, Zach Merrett, Dylan Shiel

POTENTIAL 2021 A-GRADERS

Andrew McGrath, Jordan Ridley, Sam Draper, Kyle Langford

POTENTIAL 2021 DOWNGRADES

Michael Hurley, Cale Hooker, Dyson Heppell

The downgrades first? Okay… both Hurley and Hooker are starting to turn like container ships. Hooker looks way too slow when matched against anyone on the lead and Hurley no longer appears to be in the elite bracket, either. They will be aided by the return of Patrick Ambrose, who can take a lockdown role. That could free Hurley up as an interceptor again.

Heppell had a horror year and if he was on the cusp of A-Grade at one point, he no longer is.

McGrath is definitely on the right path now, as is Jordan Ridley.

Shiel can be incredibly damaging but I still do not trust his disposal, whilst Zach Merrett could be the most consistent outside mid in the game over the last five seasons. Retaining him at the club was vital to the Bombers and given they managed that as they completed a successful trade period, I expect him to continue to dominate on the outside. I’d be playing him on the wing as much as possible.

Sam Draper looks great and matched it with some of the AFL’s big boys in his first go-round. He will be bigger and better in 2021. And Kyle Langford is in there as well. Playing an attacking wing role, he looks as though he found his niche.

Surprisingly, though the Bombers don’t rate well under this system, I don’t think they’re that bad at all. They’re one good inside midfielder away from being a good side. They were close with Dunkley.

 

17th – HAWTHORN – 7 points

Last season – 11th

CURRENT A-GRADERS

Tom Mitchell, Luke Breust, Jack Gunston

POTENTIAL 2021 A-GRADERS

Jaeger O’Meara, Chad Wingard, James Worpel, Will Day

POTENTIAL 2021 DOWNGRADES

James Sicily, Tom Scully, Jonathon Patton

It hurts me to write this… you guys know I am a Hawks man.

Despite his injury, Tom Mitchell is still an A-Grader and the combination of Breust and Gunston provide an excellent one-two punch. Sadly, they should be a two-three punch but the team lacks a genuine number one forward capable of clunking contested marks.

That was supposed to be Jon Patton, but it is painfully obvious that his body will not allow him to ever reach his potential. After Tom Scully’s first season in brown an gold, he went backwards and had to be content with the label “does unrewarded running” a little too often. You’d like some rewards now and again, right?

On the upside, Will Day showed plenty and James Worpel, despite taking a back seat to Mitchell on his return, has indicated he’ll be around the mark for years. Wingard started the season really well before tapering off, whilst the injury to James Sicily hurt in so many ways I had to go get some tests done.

 

18th – ADELAIDE – 7 points

Last season – 10th

CURRENT A-GRADERS

Matt Crouch, Rory Laird

POTENTIAL 2021 A-GRADERS

Darcy Fogarty, Tom Doedee, Lachie Sholl

POTENTIAL 2021 DOWNGRADES

Rory Sloane

Massive fall down the list from Rory Sloane. Remember where he was at in 2017/18? He was a shell of that player in 2020 and looking at the Adelaide list, a return to something even remotely like his best is desperately needed to help the young fellas and take a bit of weight off their shoulders as they develop.

I’m a Fog believer, but I have to admit, I am starting to waver. Really needs to impose himself on the game in 2021, whilst Tom Doedee getting a clean run at a year of footy will probably see him pushing for A-Grade Status to take the heat off Daniel Talia.

Loved what I saw from Lachie Sholl. With a footy pedigree, his outside run made the Crows look great late in the year.

And for those wondering, Tex had his big fall down the list in last year’s column. He’s right around that same mark – no use in kicking him twice. I left Milera off the list of potentials due to him missing 2020.

 

So there we go. I am sure plenty of people will chime in with how full of shit I am. I mean, it’s par for the course these days, right?

As always, happy debate. Leave your take in the comments here, or on our socials and I’ll get back to you.

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