Who Needs To Step Up In 2021?

Every team has one or two players that have perhaps… underperformed in 2020, or even in the couple of years prior.

With the pandemic seemingly under some semblance of control in our country, we should be looking at a full season (With crowds! Get back to the footy!) for players to strut their stuff, but there are some that need a big season more than others.

2020 saw players like Christian Petracca, Jack Steele and Sam Menegola have big seasons to find themselves in the top handful of players at their respective clubs, but who will be the bolters of 2021? And who needs a season of redemption?

The Mongrel dives into each team and the players most in need of a big season. For some, their dip in form may have been due to injury. For others, the excuses are a little more flimsy, but make no mistake; their teams need a lift from these blokes next season.

And for members, there is another 40… yep 40 players listed below under the initial 18. That’s the kind of fella I am… just doing the work for our members.

If there are any you think I have missed, by all means, let me know.

Finally, I have tried to steer clear of players who have just switched teams – I reckon they’re under enough pressure.





This bloke can make a real difference to the Crows in 2021.

Missing almost the entire 2020 season, Wayne Milera robbed Adelaide of some valuable run and carry off half back, and at just 23, we have not yet seen the best from him.

The Crows’ defensive stocks and running brigade took a huge hit when Milera went down injured. I expected him to be one of the players that made a significant step in 2020 and in many ways, thought he’d help stop the bleeding at Adelaide.

However, with the Crows faltering, his absence was keenly felt, placing a huge burden on not only Brodie Smith, but also leaving scant cover for the move of Rory Laird into the guts.

Milera adds another player with genuine pace and a willingness to take the game – something Adelaide were lacking in 2020. His line-breaking abilities and penchant for tucking he ball under his arm could provide the Crows with some scintillating dashes from half back.

Assuming he slots back in at half back, right?

Milera is highly capable of moving into the middle, and with Brad Crouch heading out the door, Adelaide need some players with a bit of pace through the middle while players like Chayce Jones and Jackson Hately develop.

2021 could be the season that Matty Nicks allows Milera to demonstrate what he is capable of. If he can get off the chain and start hitting targets inside 50, he makes forwards like Tex Walker, Elliott Himmelberg and Darcy Fogarty more potent weapons than we saw in 2020.





He’s close to taking the next step and becoming the hard midfielder the Lions hope he can be, but his end to 2020 was not ideal at all.

There is little doubt that Jarrod Berry will be a success at AFL level, but how far he can climb and the height of his ceiling remain questions without answers.

Berry is the type of player that is up for the fight. He will fight, scratch and claw in one-on-one contests and would be the sort of player you’d hate to be matched up on during training drills. Spending only limited time in the middle, Berry is nearing the point where he will make a claim on a permanent on-ball position, but who makes room for him?

The Lions have a great balance of mids, with Lachie Neale and Jarryd Lyons doing the bulk of the inside work. Could Berry start challenging for that spot behind Neale? Is he capable of knocking Lyons into third place on the Lions’ midfield ladder? He turns 23 in February and whilst it may be a little early for him to knock a hard body like Lyons out of the role, it will continue trending that way as Berry finds more and more time in the middle.

So, what is his ceiling? And how close can he get to it this season?

Berry has never averaged over 20 disposals per game, with his best of 19.6 coming in 2019. Unlike many, I do not believe he is the kind of player who needs 30+ to hurt teams. His ceiling might be more akin to someone like Elliot Yeo – a two-way player that makes his touches count.

In terms of the 2021 season, berry would be well-served by averaging around 21 touches per game – a decent improvement on the 2019 career-high, but a tackle count over 4.5 would also be the goal. If he is going to be a star two-way player, he has to tick both boxes.

And he also has to stand up in a final in 2021. With eight touches in the prelim… he has a bit to make up for.





Are we ready to admit that Dow has been a bit of a disappointment thus far?

With just three games to his name in 2020, Dow failed to make the necessary improvements to his game to slot into this improving Carlton side. With the Blues adding more talent this off-season, what the future holds for the former number three pick is now very much up in the air.

Was his lack of opportunity in 2020 a concession of sorts that he is not in the mix in terms of talent? Or was it a foot in the backside in regard to his work ethic?

We’ve all seen the pre-season pics that made him look like a junior version of The Hulk last season, but that appeared to amount to nothing in the grand scheme of the Carlton season. After playing 39 games in his first two years, to take part of just three games…

With averages of around 14 disposals per game in 2018 and 2019, Dow returned just nine possessions per contest in 2020. At 21 when the season starts, as weird as it sounds, he could already be at the crossroads of his career.

Looking at the talented young stars in the league, Dow should be sitting alongside Walsh, Rowell, Serong, Anderson, Rozee, Bailey Smith and Xavier Duursma. He’s quite a way from that level right now and 2021 has to be the year he starts to bridge that gap.

If it starts to widen even more, Carlton may have to start considering whether they’ve backed the wrong horse, here.





The superstar tag. The superstar profile. And now the superstar pay packet from a club struggling to fit people in their cap.

It’s time for de Goey to start earning that which has been so readily bestowed upon him by the AFL media.

One could argue that he stood up in the game against Geelong, snagging five goals. Yep, he did. Josh Bruce kicked six goals at one stage in 2020 as well. Where’s his tag of “superstar”?

One could blame injury for de Goey’s failure to truly establish himself as one of the game’s true greats, but how about we instead look at the condition he returned to Collingwood early in 2020. With a belly looking like he was trying to emulate… well, me, de Goey might be able to work back into shape quickly, but really, should he have to?

It will be interesting to see how de Goey fronts up to Collingwood to prepare for the 2021 season. With two years guaranteed, does he now buckle down and reward Collingwood for putting their faith in him? Or does he enjoy the festive season a little too much again?

He will turn 25 before the season starts. His CV reads like that of an underachiever. With no All-Australian selections to his name (he made the 40-man squad in 2018) and just one finish in the top ten of the Copeland trophy (eighth place in 2018), this has to be the year de Goey becomes the superstar he is celebrated as. Otherwise, he is an imposter posing amongst the greats of the game.

Yeah… whack.





Best and Fairest in his first season with the Bombers, the fall of Devon Smith from being the best tackler in the game to whatever he was in 2020 was marked.

He suffered through an injury-plagued 2019 season but his inability to get near his 2018 form really hurt the Bombers. Smith was their mongrel. He was their pressure midfielder. He was the guy who dared opponents to take him and dragged them to the ground when they did.

He averaged a monstrous 8.45 tackles per game in 2018. In 2020, he managed just 3.81. I’m no mathemagician, but it doesn’t take a genius to work out that this is less than half the output he had prior to his injury.

Is he capable of doing the grunt work at Essendon, or is he a man from the Joe Ganino school of making the acquaintance of ladies? As in, one good effort early in the piece and that’s all you’re ever going to get from him?

The Bombers lack toughness in the clinches – that’s why they were so hell-bent on acquiring Josh Dunkley. They lack toughness because Dev Smith went from being a destructive force in the middle to more of an antagonistic nuisance. Now, it’s time for the mongrel to re-emerge.





Imagine having that kind of height and those kind of hands?

Rory Lobb doesn’t have to imagine, but it appears as though he has quite a fertile mind anyway. Sadly, it seemed it was filled with a lot of doubt in 2020.

Lobb looked as though he was too tentative in 2020. He dropped marks he should have taken, missed shots at goal he should have kicked, and appeared as though he was overthinking things every time an opportunity presented itself.

After declaring he did not want to play ruck a couple of years back, Lobb has spent the majority of his time at Freo as a hybrid centre half forward and really could take the game by the scruff of the neck and shake the life out of it if he had his head on straight.

And therein lays the problem.

There is a very good reason sports psychologists are paid handsomely. They are able to work with players to get them past the kind of funk Lobb apparently found himself in throughout 2020. With Matt Taberner doing his part, the Fremantle version of the twin towers was…man, I am trying to mindful of twin-towers comparisons here.

Is a firing Rory Lobb the difference between Fremantle playing finals and bouncing around the middle of the table? Maybe, but it would need to be a significant improvement on his 2020 output. Ten touches a game to go with 3.7 marks is simply not good enough for a man of his talent. Despite being third in contested grabs in 2020, his influence did not match that standing and his 0.6 goals per game were nowhere near enough for a bloke who was contested close to goal so often.





Rumours were floating around everywhere prior to the 2020 trade period. Would Jordan Clark leave Geelong to pursue a better chance to play senior footy?

The answer was emphatic, and Clark will be at Sleepy Hollow in 2021 with a mission to break into the senior side and hold his spot as the Cats have a huge tilt at the flag.

I reckon there are a few people who don’t realise just how young Clark is. At 20, time is on his side, and what we have seen from him has been of an excellent standard throughout his short 21 game career. He has shown plenty of ability across half back and could eventually emerge as the next great wingman at Geelong if the plan is to play him further up the field.

However, right now, Clark needs to cut his teeth in defence, which is where the majority of his 21 games have come thus far.

With 15-20 games to his name in 2021, Clark will have gone a fair way to entrenching himself in the team but what he really wants/needs to do is have his name on the team sheet when the finals roll around. He is yet to play September football at Geelong and if the temptation of staying to play in a successful side was what got him over the line with the Cats, he is going to have to give himself every opportunity to be right at the pointy end of the season.

Had he pushed hard enough, Jordan Clark would be playing elsewhere in 2021. Instead, he has taken the hard road – the courageous road – and he will be attempting to break into one of the best teams of the year.





This was a marked fall from grace in 2020.

In 2019, Fiorini averaged 25.4 touches per game after three seasons prior battling away in a Suns team that was struggling. Then, all of a sudden, like he’d been put under a spell by the Monstars, he dipped to just 13 touches per game in 2020 and seemingly could not get near it.

Was he carrying an injury? Was it a work ethic thing? A personality clash with Stuart Dew?

Irrespective of the reason, Fiorini found himself out of the midfield loop and eventually, out of the side altogether. In his last game of 2020, he returned an insipid three disposals as he played between wing and half back, completely unable (or maybe unwilling?) to get into the game.

I thought we may have seen Fiorini traded this off-0season, but there was no word from his camp as to whether he wanted out, and his name came up in no trade rumours, either.

So, what do we need from Fiorini in 2021?

The Suns have midfield polish aplenty now. They have a great inside/outside combination with young talent to burn. It is going to take hard work from Fiorini to crack this midfield group and sustained brilliance to keep his place in the side.

He is too good to play five games and average 13 touches. Way too good. 2020 was a regression, but that does not mean he cannot reload and ready himself for a full-on assault on the 2021 season. Having watched him for years, I’m backing him, but I sincerely hope he’s backing himself, as he looked lost and disinterested at times in 2020.





His first year as captain didn’t quite pan out as planned, did it?

After the “will he/won’t he?” discussions of late 2019, Stephen Coniglio re-signed with the GWS Giants and was awarded the captaincy either as a thank you for his commitment to the team… or as part of the negotiations. I’m sure you all have your own point of view as to which it was.

But the captaincy didn’t translate to success, either on a personal level or in terms of team success, with the Giants playing some insipid football to miss finals, and Coniglio becoming the first club captain to be dropped in ages.

As 2021 rolls around, Coniglio should be the most determined player in the game. As good as he’s been over the journey, right at the moment, his legacy at GWS is tarnished. Is that a little harsh?

Maybe, but the scenario facing Coniglio and his Giants will define his captaincy and the immediate future of this club.

GWS are still stacked for talent, but they played like a team of champions in 2020 – they need to develop the mentality of a champion team to once again challenge. And that mentality has to start with Cogs.

Perhaps there is something to take solace in for Coniglio – the time it took Trent Cotchin to grow into his leadership role at Richmond had many questioning his captaincy.

There are never any questions asked of the Richmond captain’s leadership these days.

Stephen Coniglio is a great player, but his leadership has not yet been proven. 2021 has to be the season where he stands up and drags his team back to the finals. He has to show the way and they have to follow. 2021 is where the GWS captain makes a stand.





This hurts a little… you guys know I am a Hawks man.

Jaeger O’Meara is better than what he showed us in 2020. He is better than the bloke we saw in 2019, for that matter. He is classy, balanced and powerful, but what we’ve got over the past two seasons is a player who seems happy to throw the footy on his boot and let someone else work out how to deal with it down the field.

When Hawthorn made the move to recruit O’Meara, he came with a dark cloud attached. Would he be able to overcome the knee injury that had so curtailed his Gold Coast career? Could he fulfil his potential?

The answers to those two questions are YES and NO, in that order. O’Meara has shown why the Hawks were so keen on getting him right, but he was unable to take on the role of the number one midfielder when Tom Mitchell went down injured in 2019. Instead, it was James Worpel swooping in and assuming the position.

With Mitchell back in fold in 2020, O’Meara continued to work hard at stoppages, but with a disposal efficiency of just 64% (52% by foot) O’Meara hardly struck fear into the hearts of opponents when he had the footy. And that was actually an improvement on some deplorable numbers in 2019.

So, what do the Hawks need from JOM in 2021?

Some poise would be nice. Hitting targets would be great. And if he can do that whilst maintaining around five or so clearances per game, he may be the type of player that can propel the Hawks to wins they may not get near, otherwise.





Enough is enough.

This bloke was either the luckiest Brownlow finisher since Shane Woewodin, or there is some potential for Angus Brayshaw to be a serious player in the AFL.

Since his excellent 2018 season, Brayshaw has looked like a fish out of water in the Melbourne midfield. In a team that struggles to hit targets, Brayshaw simply didn’t get enough of the footy to have a significant impact on the Dees.

His 16.6 touches per game in 2020 were a far cry from the level Melbourne supporters felt he’d be at by this point. Shunted out to the wing, the connection with Max Gawn at stoppages – so brilliant in 2018 – is now seemingly something that should be remembered fondly, as it appears as though we may never see it again.

What has been most apparent in Brayshaw’s play has been his lack of confidence. It’s like he has read all the press about him and feels the pressure when he goes near the footy. He looks little like the player who had such great hands and averaged 4.3 clearances in 2018. He dipped to 3.3 in 2019 and bottomed out at 2.1 in 2020.

It is a slide that must be arrested in a hurry.

I wondered whether Brayshaw would be better-suited playing his football elsewhere, under a new system. He looks lost at the Dees, but this kind of form is nothing a good season cannot fix.

Brayshaw needs to impose himself on a few games in 2021. He needs to stop taking a backseat to Oliver, Viney and Petracca so willingly to the point he becomes expendable.

He needs a 20+ average possession season. He needs over four clearances per game. And he needs to make his claims on a midfield slot at Melbourne absolutely undeniable. Anything less and he should consider his options.





I want to preface this with how much I enjoy watching Cam Zurhaar play footy. He is like a throwback to a time when players didn’t hesitate or think about duty of care, mathematical equations and weight ratios when attacking a contest. Moreover, he looks like he enjoys crashing into opponents… I dog that about him.

But what I don’t dig is the fact he looks and plays like he is less fit than most other blokes on the park.

There is a real challenge in 2021 for Cam Zurhaar. It isn’t to alter the way he plays the game, but it is to have the fitness base to allow himself to do what he does more often.

Those who have read our members articles in recent weeks will be aware of the way Brayden Maynard capitalised on Zurhaar’s lack of defensive run when North played the Pies this year. That cannot be allowed to occur again, particularly as it becomes more common knowledge that you can run off Zurhaar without fear of being run down.

I could probably add his housemate into this equation as well, as Nick Larkey has all the tools to team with Zurhaar and become a really formidable one-two punch, but the work definitely Has to be done first.

This will be the biggest pre-season of Zurhaar’s life. This is the time he shows up in the best possible condition and trains the house down. This is the time he demonstrates that he is taking his footy seriously. And this is the season that he takes a stand and shows that “Shinboner Spirit” is more than just a catchphrase the club can throw out there to drum up support.

Zurhaar can be the type of player others will naturally follow, but he has to be a “do as I do” kind of leader, and in order to be that, he has to get himself in great shape. The player he could become far surpasses the player he already is.





This is a bit of a surprise, I’m sure, but I don’t know too many Port Adelaide fans who would say they were completely satisfied with the second year development of Connor Rozee.

Then again, it is pretty difficult to improve drastically on what was a phenomenal debut season in 2019.

It just never seemed to completely click for Rozee in 2020. There were glimpses and he probably saved his best til last with his Preliminary Final performance, but on the whole, could you really state that his second season in the league was an improvement on his first?

If there is a silver lining to this it is that Rozee taking a slight step back to the pack allowed Zak Butters to take a huge step forward. The challenge now is to continue to step forward together.

Rozee has the potential to be one of the best small-medium forwards in the game. There is so much of the young Robbie Gray about him that it should terrify those who have to formulate game plans to stop him over the next ten years, but to go from 1.32 goals per game to just 0.56 is concerning. You could put a bit of that down to spending more time running through the middle, but really, Port will be reliant on him being better year after year for a while yet before he plateaus.

If we’re looking at a pass mark for Rozee in 2021, an improvement on his 2020 season just is not enough. You would want to see a jump from his rookie season numbers as well. 17-18 touches per game and up around a goal and a half per game and we might be talking potential All-Australian in year three for him.

Another season like 2020, however, and those who like to sink the boots in will be lacing them up and stretching the hamstrings.





Damien Hardwick and the Tigers hierarchy must have some sort of man crush on Castagna.

In the past two seasons, both Dan Butler and Jack Higgins have been allowed to walk out of Punt Road and find redder, whiter and blacker pastures in St Kilda, whilst Castagna has been retained as one of the resident small forwards at Tigerland.

When you think about it, it’s a little difficult to fathom, right?

I suppose what works in Castagna’s favour is that he consistently nets you a goal per game (his drop to 0.81 per season in 2020 is in line with the 20% reduced game time) and applies solid forward fifty pressure.

But is that enough to cement you the small forward spot whilst others walk out the door?

Castagna is just 24 years old and still has a lot of miles left in his legs. Realtively injury-free for his entire career, he is as reliable as they come. But is a big season needed to make Tiger fans forget about favourites like Butler and Higgins? And what would that look like from a Tigers perspective?

Castagna was good for 26th in the league in terms of tackles inside 50 in 2020. In front of him was only Daniel Rioli (equal eighth) from Richmond, whom I have been very critical of in the past for disappearing, but he does put in some good defensive work inside 50.

Castagna needs to match his teammate in that regard. The Richmond swarm (or Tiger ambush, if you prefer) is one of the premier’s greatest weapons and when players like Rioli and Castagna are nailing tackles in the forward half, the Tigers start to frenzy. That is the Castagna value. That is what he brings to this team. And if he and Rioli sit in the top ten in tackles inside 50 for the 2021 season, you can be damn sure the Tigers will be well and truly in contention for the flag that could put them at the top of the tree in terms of the great modern teams.





A few people would name others as their most disappointing player of the 2020 season, but Brad Hill has my vote, quite easily.

He was supposed to be the best of the St Kilda recruits this year – the relentless run, the speed that does not diminish as the game wears on… but what we got instead was excuses.

“Oh, his teammates aren’t getting him involved.”

“Oh, he needs his teammates to bring him into the game and give him the ball.”

Oh… bullshit.

Brad Hill was a disappointment this season because he was waiting for that to happen. These teammates were doing their job – they were getting the footy, but Hill was simply not doing his job and he was definitely not holding up his end of the bargain. He was either in the wrong spots or he was covered. And he was seemingly quite content with it.

Hill had 20+ disposals just three times in 2020. He was at that mark 18 times in 2019. He played 17 games where he had three contested touches or less in a game in 2020. Yes, he is an outside player, but sometimes outside players have got to earn the footy. Sometimes they have to beat their man and win a contest.

Unless you’re Brad Hill, apparently.

Think about some other “outside”players.

Andrew Gaff? He had three or less contested possessions twice.

Zach Merrett? He had less than three contested touches ZERO times.

Sam Menegola? Once

Shaun Higgins? Six times, and I thought he had a poor season!

17 times Brad Hill had three contested touches or less. He simply didn’t want to earn the footy, and that’s on him. That needs to be a hell of a lot better in 2021 because as of the end of 2020, he was the worst of the five recruits that joined St Kilda last season.





There are not many that would argue that Isaac Heeney is one of the best young talents in the league… but I am going to give it a red hot go.

The tools are there, the spectacular play is there, but my argument is that Isaac Heeney is no longer one of the young players in the league. No more 23 and under team selections of him. He will turn 25 as the 2021 season unfolds, and it is time to stop being viewed as one of the best young players in the competition and start being looked at as one of the best players the game has t offer, irrespective of age.

I have some sympathy for Heeney – he was used as a Mr Fix-it by John Longmire for a couple of years. Need a clearance? Heeney was in the guts. Need a goal? Throw Heeney forward. Need a stop? There was Heeney patrolling defensive fifty. I’m all for versatility, but Heeney is a special talent and probably needs to grow and develop into a role now. He cannot be the stop-gap for his whole career.

So, where to play him? And what to expect?

I’d love to see Heeney play forward. Whether Franklin is able to play or not, Heeney has the capacity to become the man up forward for Sydney. If he does, he can take the heat of blokes like Tom Papley. Imagine Papley as your third option? I reckon the Swans’ scoring woes don’t last much longer.

And what to expect from him if he does play forward? He’s already been over a goal per game four times in six years with the Swans. Is a leap to two goals out of the question? As the focal point of the attack, this could be in play, but a more realistic target is probably around the 1.5-1.6 goals per game.

But two goals per game from Heeney would elevate him to the level many already see him at. He could be the next genuine Sydney star by the end of 2021.





This may come across as a little harsh, but the Eagles are a much better team when Jeremy McGovern is on the park – therefore I reckon it is justified.

No defender in the league has the influence on a game that McGovern does. None!

To his credit, he has been incredibly durable over the journey, particularly for one who…. errr, doesn’t look like the fittest bloke in the world. But that kind of caught up with him in 2020, with Gov spending time out of the game to get right, then doing his hammy in the last game of the year as well.

He played 12 games for the season (yes, the reduced schedule meant he was always going to have a lower number, but this is the lowest of his career, and given he was hurt in his last game, maybe he wouldn’t have played many more than that, anyway) and at 28 years old, needs to be in the best possible shape to start every season from here on out.

I am extremely interested in the kind of shape McGovern shows up to pre-season in after Christmas. Never an Adonis, McGovern needs to be able to cover the ground well enough to deter the opposition from kicking anywhere near him. This forces teams to restructure and work around him, allowing fellow defenders and midfielders to get back and block up leading lanes.

McGovern is the great disruptor, however his 2020 was one that wasn’t so great at all in many aspects. Just when it seemed as though he was working into form, his body betrayed him and with Gov, I reckon all it takes for his fitness to fall away is a niggle or two – he is very similar to Luke Hodge in that regard, who always struggled in his twenties once he had to carry or recover from an injury.

Even if the Eagles choose to rest Gov here or there to ease the burden on his body, it is imperative that he is in the best possible shape by March. I don’t think it is a stretch to state that his fitness could be the difference between a deep West Coast finals run and a first round exit in 2021.

Some could argue it may have been the difference in 2020 as well.





Are you familiar with the Beatles song “Getting Better”?

It’s on the Sgt Peppers album, and during the song, Paul McCartney sings about how things are improving, only for John Lennon, on background vocals, to chime in with “It can’t get no worse”.

And so it is that we come to Josh Bruce, who came in to help Aaron Naughton and other than one game, spent his time running around at three-quarter pace and having little to no impact on games.

What the Dogs need from Bruce is for him to have a good, hard think about what he wants to be as a footballer. Does he want to hang around the club for a few years, have the occasional game where he kicks four or five and then goes missing for a month? Or does he want to work himself into the best shape of his life and start to really impact games? Note, gameS. Plural – not just one game.

Bruce would be well-placed making a phone call to Charlie Dixon. They’re roughly the same size but the conditioning of Dixon makes Bruce look… well, second rate. Have a chat to Charlie, emulate what he was doing and the rewards will not just be evident for Bruce, but for the Western Bulldogs and their supporters.

Josh Bruce has the ability – you don’t kick six in the modern game without being able to play, but at 28, the time to take his footy seriously is right now.

“It can’t get no worse…”

Thanks John.


And as a bonus for our fan-bloody-tastic members, here are an additional 40 players across all clubs that really need a lift in 2021. Yep, the Mongrel is going the extra mile for our members – the next lazy 5K words are for you guys. Thank you.


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