There are a few neglected positions in the AFL.

Missionary… reverse cowgirl if the rumours are true…

Sorry about that. We’re here to talk about onfield positions and how some of the best players in the league were snubbed in 2020 and basically get snubbed every season.

Defenders get shafted,  but they have a better time of it than the wingmen, who seem to get forgotten every season as the All-Australian selectors opt to bundle midfielders in together and neglect to recognise what those players bring to the game.

In 2020, Cam Guthrie was named on the wing in the All-Australian team. He wasn’t even the best wingman on his team. On the other wing we had Jack Macrae, who spent a few moments during the season running down the wing when he chased the ball out wide from the centre. But he didn’t play there.

This was not the first time we’d seen wingmen completely ignored in favour of mids that couldn’t gain a spot against their peers.

Thus, our weekly wingman rankings were born, and in 2020, it was Sam Menegola who reigned supreme.

However, there is another group of players that were left out in the cold in 2020. As I sat and watched the All-Australian team announcement, I rolled my eyes as Patrick Dangerfield was announced on the half-forward flank. The bloke kicked 17 goals from 21 games in 2020 and yet here he was on the forward line.

But things then got worse. The highlight package for the full forwards and forward pockets aired and in the mix was Dustin Martin.

Now, I am not a Dusty-knocker. He is a superstar of the game and deserves all the praise he gets, but he is a midfielder and if he wasn’t going to be named in the midfield, he should have been afforded a place on the bench. Of course, he wasn’t, and the small forwards were the ones to suffer.

Players who deserved to be recognised for their efforts during the 2020 season were put on the backburner. Tom Papley, who carried the Sydney forward line, didn’t make the cut. Nor did Dan Butler, whose debut season with the Saints made everyone sit up and take notice.

These guys kicked and 26 and 29 goals respectively – excelling in the primary role of the small forward. Butler also led the league in the other key factor for small forwards – tackles inside 50. Whilst Papley was 20 behind Butler’s 37 for the season, he had both Dusty and Danger covered quite handily.

So, given that the All-Australian team failed to recognise established forwards in the positions they play, someone has to do it, right?

I’m someone. To some, I am, anyway.

During the 2020 season, I started to toy with the idea of x-factor rankings and the criteria that would go into ranking these players. Total goals and tackles inside 50 are a given, but what else can they do that would feed into the standings?

Brownlow votes? Yep.

Coaches votes? Yep again.

How about score involvements? Marks inside 50? And having to average over a goal per game to qualify? Yep, yep and yep (at least during our home and away season rankings). All-Australian and AA Squad selections? Yep. And to make sure we capture the little things, one-percenters as well? Mmm hmm.

And the final criteria – no key position players.

This allows for a fluid ranking system that rewards consistent production from the small or mid-sized forwards who get shafted when it comes to recognition. I’m using a similar formula to our overall player rankings, that allows us to compile the Mongrel 50, inasmuch as the most recent season is weighted at 100%, points scored in 2019 are at 50% and anything accomplished in the 2018 season runs at 25%.

The 2021 in-season version of these rankings will become a fortnightly column during the season and will be for our Inner Circle members, adding a bit more value to those guys who support us to produce content – it is greatly appreciated. However, for the pre-season version, capturing data from the last three seasons (remember that, okay?) I’m leaving it open for all. If you like this kind of stuff and would like to see more of this and how it evolves during the season, you’ll have to join as an Inner Circle member. Until then, however, here is the 2021 Pre-Season X-Factor Rankings.

 

20 – JAMIE ELLIOTT (COLLINGWOOD) 23 POINTS

Hard work inside 50 in 2020 sees Elliott crack the top twenty. He was fourth overall among small forwards in tackles inside 50 and was also prevalent in terms of one-percenters.

Missing for most of 2018, Elliott has re-established himself over the past couple of seasons and even started to move into the midfield in 2020.

 

19 – JEREMY FINLAYSON (GWS) 28.75 POINTS

Continually bobs up and kicks goals.

Finlayson picked up hardly any points for his 2020 performance, but his 2019 performance was excellent and one of the reasons wy GWS was able to position themselves for a shot at the title. Plays nothing like a traditional forward, almost displaying an element of sneakiness to his game (don’t get angry… I really rate sneakiness as a weapon) to get out into the open in traffic.

GWS will need plenty from him in 2021 with Jeremy Cameron out the door.

 

18 – SHAI BOLTON (RICHMOND) 30 POINTS

In on the strength of his 2020 season, even with a penalty applied for the amount of time he spent in the midfield. Was a pretty handy half-forward flank in 2019.

Bolton really emerged in 2020 and showcased what he was capable of with Dion Prestia on the sidelines, and when the reigning best and fairest returned to the line-up, Bolton moved back to half-forward and put the Saints to the sword in the semi-final, slotting three goals.

 

17 – BAYLEY FRITSCH (MELBOURNE) 31 POINTS

The unorthodox forward has a great pair of hands and would probably rate higher if his kicking matched them.

Agile and with a terrific leap at the footy, Fritsch became the go-to forward for the Dees when it became apparent that neither Tom McDonald or Sam Weideman were not going to do much of anything in 2020. He ended up leading the Dees in goals for the season.

 

16 – JASON CASTAGNA (RICHMOND) 31.75 POINTS

Speaking of kicking straight… how would he be regarded if he slotted those goals in the 2019 grand final?

Alas, he missed them, but what Castagna does do is bob up and take marks inside 50. For a smaller bloke, he often finds space and takes uncontested grabs after losing his man. That is a talent in and of itself.

He also ranked highly in score involvements in the Tigers’2019 premiership season, holding him in good stead heading into this ranking system.

 

15 – GARY ROHAN (GEELONG) 32 POINTS

Well, we don’t penalise people for poor Grand Final outings…

Rohan did a fair bit of everything in 2020, scoring points in goals, marks inside 50, one-percenters and score involvements. One of our writers, who shall remain nameless… let’s call him Julian R. No, no… that’s too obvious – how about J Russo? He believes that 2021 will be Rohan’s best season to date with both Hawkins and Cameron drawing the defensive heat.

Let’s see how accurate the fella is, huh?

 

14 – JORDAN DE GOEY (COLLINGWOOD) 32.5 POINTS

Massive 2018 followed by sporadic bursts of brilliance of the over next two seasons see him clock in outside the top ten.

Has the capacity to be in the top handful of players in the game, but has been unable to reach the level many have expected of him. Despite being restricted in 2020, picked up some coaches votes, which buoyed his totals for this ranking.

In a Magpie forward line that clicks, de Goey is a heat magnet and brings his teammates into the game with his presence and ability to draw defenders to him. The Pies will need him at his best if they are to make any noise in 2021, and after jettisoning two players to make room for his contract, he owes them.

 

13 – TOBY GREENE (GWS) 34.25 POINTS

Perhaps my favourite player to watch, he has been curtailed by both niggling soft tissue injuries and a bit of… hmmm… over-exuberance when it comes to physical play. Is that the right way of putting it?

I wholeheartedly believe that Toby Greene could be the best player in the league if he gets things right, but given what we’ve seen over the past few seasons, he only seems to get things right for a few games before something goes a little wrong.

 

12 – CHAD WINGARD (HAWTHORN) 36.25 POINTS

The first of the Hawks appears on the list on the back of a pretty good season in a poor team last year.

As a floating half-forward, Wingard picked up plenty of coaches and Brownlow votes as well as scoring in both one-percenters and score involvements. He fell away toward the end of the year, but was looking like an All-Australian forward through the first couple of months of the season.

 

11 – ANTHONY MCDONALD-TIPUNGWUTI (ESSENDON) 36.5 POINTS

A very strong 2019 season supplements his 2020 totals and propels Walla deep into the rankings.

He has been top five amongst small forwards for tackles inside 50 in both of the last two seasons, making him a feared presence in the Bombers’ forward line. Probably has too many games where he simply cannot get into the action, but his impact when he is on is undoubted.

A hard man to tackle, I would love access to the “broken tackle” statistics if anyone would like to send them to me – I reckon  AMT would be right up near the top for small forwards.

 

E9 – LUKE BREUST (HAWTHORN) 38 POINTS

In on the back of a huge 2018 season and a decent 2019 season, but he barely added to those totals in 2020.

A good way to gauge whether the Hawks have had a good year is to check the stats for Luke Breust. In the past. Since 2012, whenever Breust has notched 40+ goals, the Hawks have played finals. In three of the past four seasons, he has kicked under 40 snags – care to guess where the Hawks finished in those years?

When on, his double-act with Jack Gunston gives Hawthorn a huge boost up forward and his tackling inside 50 has been a feature in years gone by as well.

 

E9 – MITCH WALLIS (WESTERN BULLDOGS) 38 POINTS

A great 2020 from Wallis catapults him into the top ten.

Whether he was winning one-on-one contests, taking marks, laying tackles or kicking goals, Wallis’ competitive fire was one of the aspects that made the Bulldogs a formidable team in 2020.

With Aaron Naughton hurt and Josh Bruce flouncing around like a cheap imitation of Charlie Dixon, Wallis stepped up to the plate in 2020 and led the Dogs in scoring. He’ll be a fantastic get-out-jail option in 2021 if Naughton is well-covered.

 

8 – TOM PAPLEY (SYDNEY) 59.5 POINTS

Carried the Sydney forward line in the absence of Isaac Heeney and Lance Franklin in 2020 and did it beautifully. He was painfully unlucky not to be rewarded with an All-Australian berth, and though he fell away a little toward the end of the season, no play did more heavy lifting for an undermanned side than Papley did in the first half of 2020.

It will be interesting to see what he can produce with a good marking target to draw heat (I’m thinking Heeney, here – not Buddy) in 2021.

 

7 – DAN BUTLER (ST KILDA) 66 POINTS

A change of scenery and Dan Butler burst to life in 2020. I’m not sure whether the St Kilda style suited him better, or whether the fact that he was not as required at Richmond as he thought he was compelled him to work harder, but Butler produced an incredible season for the Saints, invigorating their forward line and teaching them a thing or two about what forward pressure looks like.

He finished the season ranked number one overall (not just amongst small forwards) in tackles inside 50, and slotted 29 goals to lead St Kilda’s goal kicking.

I loved watching what Butler was able to produce in 2020 and if he can repeat it in 2021, the Saints will be one of the more dangerous teams in the game.

 

6 – ROBBIE GRAY (PORT ADELAIDE) 66.87 POINTS

The old fella has been doing it all his career and continued to do it in 2020.

Though not as prolific, Robbie Gray still had marquee moments, and whilst he played a hand in plenty of score involvements, he has been instrumental in teaching a couple of young guns the way to play small forward.

Gray’s best may be behind him, but what he does is provide a reliable option in front of goal and a cool head in a crisis. Playing less midfield means that Gray now commands an excellent defender each and every week and if that frees up the likes of Rozee and Butters, the Power are looking hard to stop with the ball on the deck.

Still, I reckon Gray will have a game or two where he snags four or five. It’s just what Robbie Gray does…. only he just won’t be doing it in one quarter anymore.

 

5 – MICHAEL WALTERS (FREMANTLE) 73 POINTS

Copped a small penalty for spending time in the midfield, but Walters is at his most dangerous when he floats inside 50 and tears teams’ hearts out.

The 2019 All-Australian is one of the more gifted small men in the game and is as tough as nails, but damn it, I wish he would stop throwing his head back like he’s been shot every time someone lays a tackle on him. I reckon it is the only weakness to his game and is getting to the stage where it is damaging his reputation.

But I digress…

With Freo looking as though they are a team that may start to contend for finals in 2021, Walters’ ability to get forward and create havoc inside 50 will be vital.

 

4 – CHRISTIAN PETRACCA (MELBOURNE) 77 POINTS

Finally broke out in 2020 and made the footy world sit up and take notice.

At his best when patrolling around the fifty-metre line, Petracca was the highest-ranked player on this list in score involvements, coaches votes and Brownlow votes. He picked up his first All-Australian blazer in 2020 and added a Bluey Truscott Medal as the Dees’ best and fairest in 2020.

Amazingly, just 11% of Petracca’s overall score in these rankings comes from the 2018-19 seasons. He took off into the stratosphere in 2020 and the Dees will need him to do the same if they’re planning on ever replicating the form that saw them hit the Prelim Final in 2018.

 

3 – LIAM RYAN (WEST COAST) 80 POINTS

The one small forward who was actually rewarded with an All-Australian selection in 2020, Liam Ryan made a huge leap last season and in the run home, arguably became West Coast’s most important avenue to goal. Everything he touched seemed to turn to gold.

In the top five for players ranked in goals, marks inside 50 and score involvements, Ryan became a playmaker as much as a goalsneak in 2020 and still managed to attempt at least one completely ridiculous mark per game.

A couple of years back, I actually viewed Ryan as a player that may have to get used to living in the shadow of Willie Rioli, but as we head into 2021, circumstances have dictated that not to be the case. That said, I would love to see the two of them out there playing together again sooner rather than later. They had the makings of a devastating duo.

 

2 – JACK GUNSTON (HAWTHORN) 88.87 POINTS

Very surprised to see Gunston make it so high here, but after an excellent 2018, he also performed very well in a poor team in 2020, ranking second amongst ranked players in marks inside 50 and first for ranked players in goals.

There may be some that consider Gunston a key forward – he is not. He is more a third tall; like Jeremy Finlayson at GWS only a lot better. He was playing alongside Jon Patton and/or Mitch Lewis/Tim O’Brien, who were the marking targets, but Gunston is just excellent at what he does, whether that be positioning himself well and marking under pressure or converting from tough angles.

 

1 – CHARLIE CAMERON (BRISBANE) 115 POINTS

For the second straight season, Charlie Cameron scored really well across the board, registering top-five finishes in goals, marks inside 50, tackles inside 50 and score involvements despite being hobbled for part of the year.

Whilst not as prolific as his electrifying 2019 season, Cameron was right in the mix again in 2020 as his Lions surged toward finals.

At 26, Cameron has a heap of good footy ahead of him and given his past two seasons, he will most likely be at, or near the top of any pre-season ranking such as this for a while to come yet.

 

And there we go – no Eddie Betts, no Zak Butters or Connor Rozee (yet), and no whoever else you want to throw out there.

There is a definite leaning towards those who had a big 2020. If you read at the top of the page, the scores compiled in 2020 get a 100% weighting, so Charlie Cameron’s decent season, combined with the carry-over 50% points from 2019 make up a big total.

A player that can put together three straight seasons at a high level would be number one, easily. Alas, it appears as though two high/medium level scoring seasons is all we have at the moment to work with.

I cannot wait to see what 2021 brings.

 

As a bonus for our members, here are the yearly rankings I worked off in order to compile this list. Also, a little more in depth discussion on things.

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