Sometimes it’s the big recruits that turn a club around. Sometimes it’s a new coach bringing a new style to the table that sees things click at a club.

However, more often than not it is the players already at the club, making the big step from role players to stars, or from potentially great players to one of the best in the competition that makes all the difference. Organic improvement in a football team can be the key to success, and with such a plethora of young talent in the league at the moment, it is always interesting to cast your eye over the players most likely to make the leap and improve their team in the process.

So, the criteria?

  • Players must be aged 23 or under when the season commences.
  • Players must not have finished top ten in their club’s Best and Fairest (come on Carlton, pull your bloody finger out and award your B&F).
  • Players must not have finished in the top five for the club in the Brownlow (minimum five votes).
  • And finally, no player that finished top three in the Rising Star award is eligible.

That should narrow things down a bit, right? I’ve intentionally avoided adding first-year players to the mix, as they seem to take a while to find their feet. Additionally, we often have big enough expectations on these blokes already without predicting break-out seasons.

Let’s see how we go with these top 25* players ready to break out in 2021.



Hayward has always had the potential to become a very good player. With a bit of x-factor about him, Longmire and the Swans have been patient and have even tried him as a defensive forward.

Back in 2018 (seems like forever ago, now) Hayward had a blinding start to the season, with 21 goals from his first 12 games. That’s where he needs to be again.



I was torn between having Redman or Jye Caldwell in this spot. I went with Redman given what the Bombers have lost from half back this year. McKenna and Saad have drifted off either home or a worse place and whilst the Bombers have enlisted Nick Hind, there is a bit of a hole in their half back line.

Redman didn’t make the leap forward many expected of him in 2020. At 23, his time is now.



You’ll see a bit of North Melbourne in this list as, despite what segments of the media spout, their young talent has the capacity to elevate this team quickly.

Taylor is a precocious talent and looks as though he has something special about him. Solid in the air with a great goal sense, the 20-year-old could well fly under the radar for North with Jaidyn Stephenson and Tarryn Thomas commanding the attention of small/mid-sized defenders.



Surprised a few by not looking for another home and sticking with the Cats – a sign of a young man with good character.

Constable has backed himself to win a spot in a highly competitive Geelong midfield, and wil have to muscle his way into a rotation featuring Duncan, Guthrie, Dangerfield, Parfitt and Selwood. With just two games to his name in 2020, Constable will have to make a big step to become a regular part of the midfield.



We’re still waiting on Rayner to put it all together, aren’t we?

The talent is evident, the skills can not be doubted and the ability to stand up in big moments has been established. Yet, Rayner seems to go missing for long periods without impacting contests in any way, shape or form. There is a consistency required from a young man who initially drew comparisons to Dustin Martin, but has probably been more like Steven Motlop to date.

At a goal per game in 2020, many would argue Rayner did his job, but his 5.5 disposal average in the Lions’ two finals indicate he has a long way to go yet.



Often overshadowed by other talent shining brightly at Gold Coast, Ainsworth has been quietly establishing himself as one of the best half forwards in the making.

His finish to 2020, averaging 19 touches per game over the last three games gave an inkling as to what he is capable of. Entering season four with the Suns, I would not be at all surprised to see him push beyond 20 goals for the season in 2021.



The pics in the preseason were impressive. Yes, the manchild from Adelaide was sporting a six pack and looking very fit.

One of the big knocks on the Fog has been his level of fitness and as a result, his repeat efforts, particularly defensively, have been questioned. Should finally take the torch from Tex Walker this season and establish himself as the go-to man in the Adelaide forward line.

And if he knocks a few blokes over along the way, all the better.



I’m sold on Green becoming a star, but he has a big task doing so as part of this GWS midfield, who are still absolutely stacked with top tier players despite losing both Jackson Hately and Jye Caldwell in the off-season.

Green played just six games in 2020, but his 21 contested possessions against the Dees gave an indication as to what they can look forward to.



The sign of a great team is the ability to bring through players and integrate them as part of the system without losing a step.

Ross compiled seven games in 2020 and will start to see more time in the guts as the Tigers not only push for another flag, but build a team that can continue to contend. I had a couple of people mention his name as a future captain of the Tigers recently – his time to start the journey toward that destination escalates this season.



It takes the big guys a little while to really hit their stride, and Darcy is about as big as it gets.

Entering his fifth season, Darcy breaking even with some of the best rucks in the league can only aid the Dockers as their core group of young midfield stars continues to mature. Darcy could be the piece that completes the quadrilogy of Cerra/Brayshaw/Serong for the next seven to eight years.



Injured in 2020, we really didn’t get to see what Tarryn Thomas is truly capable of and in a year where North Melbourne crumbled, the small forward contingent were the worst hit – they were playing the youngest bloke in the league on a weekly basis because they had no one else to slot in up forward.

Thomas has been labelled as “special” by many AFL analysts and could be one of the keys to the North Melbourne turnaround in 2021.



Really started to cement his position in the competitive Magpie defence in 2020, offering a solid rebounding option amid names like Crisp, Maynard and Moore.

Quaynor has plenty of dash and does not waste the footy like so many who make the running from defence. I expect him to take on more of a role with Jack Crisp perhaps spending more time in the midfield in 2021.



It was an up-and-down season for Blakey in 2020, with some really ordinary early-season performances but he managed to rally later in the season to settle a little.

Blakey remains a player without a true position, alternating between the wing and half-forward. With his skill set, he could be a really potent mobile half-forward, but you would love to see him have some scoreboard impact in 2021. Last season, he ended up with just eight goals from his 16 games.



The Hawks would be hoping someone steps up in 2020 and Scrimshaw looks the likely suspect.

After a failed run early at Gold Coast due to injury, Scrimshaw has put together 23 games in 2019/20 and the Hawks will need him to play 20+ and improve his output to cover the big holes in defence.

Scrimshaw’s presence will allow the Hawks to cover part of the role James Sicily played for the team, but with him out, it’s a large pair of shoes to fill. And Hawks fans, the reason Will Day is not listed is due to the fact he placed tenth in 2020. Them’s the rules…



The forgotten man of the GWS defence, Taylor was on the fast track to becoming one of the better young defenders in the game before being struck down with illness in 2020.

If he is able to return at anywhere near full capacity, the Giants’ defence will breathe a deep sigh of relief. Throw Davis and Taylor into that defence to support Nick Haynes, and we could see a return to form from the 2019 Grand Finalists.



Larkey did not look fit in 2020 and was forced to play a lone hand up forward following the injury to Ben Brown. With a full pre-season under his belt, he could be the kind of breakout star teams dream of having.

He has already kicked two bags of five in 2019 (no one ever speaks of them) and he has shown an ability to clunk contested grabs. North have four players on this list – if just three of them have good seasons, there’ll be more than a few people eating their words.



Port Adelaide have been patient with Marshall, but it’s amazing how a couple of factors can start trying that patience, isn’t it?

We have the next bloke on the list starting to push for the second marking forward spot now, and we have Port contending for the premiership. Patience can only last so long when it steps on the toes of success. Todd Marshall needs to take the next step this year.



Just when Todd Marshall thought the position of second forward was safe… along comes Mitch Georgiades.

The youngster attacks the footy in the air with reckless abandon and has no hesitation splitting packs, even to his own detriment. Georgiades could leapfrog Marshall quite quickly, as I reckon Port fans would be content if one of the two make the leap.

It could be the difference between a Prelim Final loss and a Grand Final berth.



The heir apparent to the West Coast forward line, Allen has been rated “elite” by the boffins at Champion Data… somehow.

Don’t get me wrong – he is an excellent player and will be a fantastic forward over the next ten years, but he is not elite… yet.

That said, with the Kennedy/Darling combination probably in its last season, Allen’s presence in the forward half will be a huge factor in the success of the Eagles in 2021. With 18 goals from his 15 games in 2020, the groundwork has been laid. If Allen can raise his average to two goals per game in 2021, the Eagles have a three-pronged attack that will be hard to contain.



Ben makes it, but Max misses out due to finishing third in the Rising Star last season.

Ben King is rarely out-marked and as he becomes stronger, you’d expect him to start wreaking havoc on defences. With almost a goal and a half per game in 2020, you could argue that King had his break out season, but there is no question in my mind he can go to another level as early as this year.

A few more contested grabs sticking in 2021 and the name of this King brother will be on everyone’s lips.



The presence of some players on a team transcends stats, and that is the case with Jack Graham at Richmond.

A future leader of the club, Graham has made his name on hard, accountable midfield football. His work in the 2019 Preliminary Final, playing with a repeatedly dislocated shoulder, will become part of Richmond folklore.

Graham is 22 with a huge tank and work ethic to match. With players like Trent Cotchin and Shane Edwards the wrong side of 30, expect the Tigers to start transitioning a few younger players into more prominent roles. And they could do a lot worse than having Graham in one of those roles.



Mate, they were comparing him to Chris Judd at points last season. It may have been a bit premature, but the talent of LDU is undeniable, and it would have warmed the hearts of Kangaroos supporters last season to see him back himself as he carried the footy through the midfield.

Having Ben Cunnington back in the lineup will help free up Davie-Uniacke in 2021 and allow him to play a style more commensurate with a 21 year old than having to put the midfield on his back at points.



A victim of the GWS squeeze in the midfield, Hately realised that he could either struggle to push into the Giants’ on-ball division or move to Adelaide, where he will get plenty of opportunities to work with Matt Crouch and Rory Sloane as his mentors.

Hately managed six games in 2020 but you’d expect him to play 20+ this season for the Crows, and whilst you don’t want to put pressure on the bloke, seeing him hit 20 touches per game should not be beyond him.



I cannot believe that Parfitt has not finished in the top ten at the Cats. Particularly in 2020 where he was one of their more impressive defensive mids.

There was a genuine reason the Cats were absolutely not interested trading Parfitt to GWS when his name came up in early trade demands – his ceiling his high and as far as I am concerned, he has already surpassed the expectations many had for him. If organic improvement is what puts teams over the top, another leap for Parfitt in 2021 could be just the ticket for the Cats.



I might be cheating a bit here, with the Blues holding off their 2020 Best and Fairest announcement until… sometime next decade, apparently.

That said, McKay’s marking prowess has made him the man in the Carlton forward line, with the absence of Charlie Curnow and the absence of form from Mitch McGovern. You’d think the Blues would love to get the footy inside 50 as quickly as possible to get big Harry as many one-on-one contests as possible in 2021. If that happens, the Blues will have a powerhouse on their hands.



*And if you read down this far, I should share something with you. The numbers don’t actually mean anything. I mean, how can you rate someone on something that may or may not happen? I just kind of ordered them randomly so some people would have a crack about it and I could have a smile. A bit of a mongrel thing to do, huh? Keep it under your hat, have a smile with me and see who bites. 🙂

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