I bang on a fair bit about organic improvement when it comes to football sides.

Some may hang their hats on gaining a big-name recruit or finding a bit of a draft diamond in the rough, but I prefer to see players performing above expectation and watching how this impacts the club and the players around them. They may be someone coming back from injury, someone who has taken a while to ‘get it’ or they might be an unheralded acquisition that cost next to nothing, yet their application, and the impact on the team cannot be questioned.

Let’s look at three to get started as examples.

Ricky Henderson at Hawthorn in 2019. Signed as a delisted free agent after the 2016 season, time on his career was ticking by rather quickly. In 2019, Henderson knuckled down to play his best season of AFL footy. Supremely fit, Henderson averaged 24.6 touches per game running off the wing for the Hawks, and became an integral part of their midfield.

Over at Carlton in 2020, and we saw the re-emergence of Sam Docherty for the Blues. After two knee reconstructions, Doc was cherry ripe to get out onto the park for his first game since 2017 and through the first four weeks of the disrupted season, the Carlton co-captain was tearing the competition up. As part of the Mongrel’s defensive player of the year rankings, Docherty sat first overall after the first month, averaging nine rebound fifty disposals per game. He was so damaging that St Kilda opted to play a defensive forward on him when the teams met in Round Five.

And then we have the cheap as chips signing, so we’ll focus on Jarryd Lyons who basically walked to the Brisbane Lions after parting ways with Gold Coast AFTER the trade period. I admit, I was a little hesitant to place faith in Lyons – why would the Suns just let him go? However, he dispelled any doubts I had by not only notching 23.8 touches in 2019, but by registering a career-best in tackles as well. In the interrupted 2020 season, Lyons continued on his merry way, second only to Lachie Neale in disposals, clearances and contested touches.

So, those are the guys we’re looking for – the ones who were down in 2020 and look to use 2021 as their way of re-establishing themselves, the players who were all-but discarded by their previous teams, and those who look set to knuckle down and emerge from the pack to make their teams better in the process.

And I’m giving the first four teams away to everyone, so the rest of you can see what this is about. The rest will be part of a members’ series. I’ve also changed up the order from last time so that Adelaide and Brisbane fans don’t get a freebie every time due I cover all teams to that damn alphabetical order.

Tricky, Mongrel… very tricky.

Anyway, enjoy, and as always, I am happy to discuss any points you guys have that differ from mine.

 

WESTERN BULLDOGS

 

JOSH BRUCE

When the Dogs needed a forward to step up in 2020, Josh Bruce did just that. For one game.

Granted, it was an impressive game, snagging six goals against North Melbourne in Round Five, but when you consider he added just eight more goals from 16 games, you get a clear picture that as a forward option, Bruce failed to deliver on a huge scale.

He was brought in to support Aaron Naughton and take some of the heat off the kid as he develops, but in the end, that role ended up being usurped by Mitch Wallis. Reports from the kennel are that Bruce has returned in good nick, but with three years left on his deal, he’d want to start returning the investment the Dogs made in him.

So, what does return on investment look like?

Bruce needs to be right around that two contested marks per game number. That is what he was brought into the side to do. That’s where you find his value. The goals will look after themselves if he’s providing that target. It also forces the defence to have a man play on him and draws the help defence as well. If Bruce is taking marks, the loose defender, or designated contest killing floater will gravitate to him – that leaves Aaron Naughton with room to move, and that can be very dangerous.

I know that things are great in theory and often fall down in practice, but we’ve seen what Bruce CAN DO on the field. We’ve seen him control a game with string hands and scoreboard conversion, but we’ve also seen him as a non-factor. He had eight games if seven disposals or less in 2020. That number balloons out to 12 games if we make the cut-off nine or less. Insipid, non-competitive displays have to be a memory for Bruce in 2021 if the Dogs are to be potent. If he is not impacting the scoreboard, he has to find other ways to do have an influence.

 

JOSH SCHACHE

Remember when Schache arrived at Whitten Oval and the talk was that he would become their key forward over the next couple of years? And now he is struggling to get a game.

Schache was a number two overall pick but is on the verge of becoming a huge bust. He managed just two games in 2020 for 6.5 touches and a goal per contest. He has watched Aaron Naughton, the disappointing Josh Bruce and Mitch Wallis all leapfrog him in terms of forward options and needs to make a stand in 2021. If he makes this his season, comes out and plays 15-17 games, and kicks 30 goals, what does that do for the Bulldogs’ chances?

If he doesn’t, what does that do for Schache’s future?

2020 was his worst season. He cannot have a repeat of it. Two games… even under five games, and his time in the league may start to be questioned. I cannot see him being around for much longer if this occurs.

 

MITCH HANNAN

The Dogs have picked up this bloke for next to nothing… assuming the expected fourth-round pick in the 2021 draft isn’t one of the best-kept secrets in Melbourne Football Club history.

These are the kinds of little moves that can add to a club. They create competition for spots in a team that is quite well-stocked for talent (you’d look at blokes like Laith Vandermeer who will be vying for the same role as Hannan) and make those around the mark work hard to remain in contention. Hannan is quick, knows where the goals are and cost bigger all – smart pick up by the Dogs and at 26, Hannan is capable of adding to the team immediately.

The Dogs would be hoping that Hannan is ready to contribute something akin to his 2018 form. 11.5 touches per game and 1.5 goals per game are probably indicative of the way the Dees were flying at that stage – everyone was seemingly peaking. The ensuing two years saw Hannan crash back to earth along with his team. The move to the Whitten Oval, a new environment and a team that moves the ball quickly and directly could suit his pace and goal sense to a tee.

 

STEF MARTIN

As much as we like Tim English (we can all see what he is capable of becoming, right?), there is no getting around the fact that the true big guys of the competition were able to abuse him at times over the last couple of seasons. Whilst I completely understand the rationale behind giving him the number one, and at times, only ruck role on the team, it was borderline neglect to allow English to battle against Gawn, Naiatanui and particularly Grundy, who has licked his lips in anticipation every time the Pies play the Dogs.

The hit-out results don’t lie. The Dogs were stone, motherless last in both 2019 and 2020. Help was needed. The Dogs gave up Lachie Young to get Martin, in what looks, on paper to be a coup, but Martin needs to stand up to make it worth the Dogs’ while. He struggled through injury in 2020 and there is the chance the Dogs may have secured his services a year or two too late.

A good year from Martin and English walks a lot taller as a result – a wonderful outcome.

So, what would it look like in terms of numbers? It’s difficult to assess the impact he could have with just his presence, so I reckon the box Martin needs to tick most of all will revolve around games played. He is 34 years old, so you’d expect he’ll miss a few here and there. Perhaps 15-18 games is a good target for him?

The other indicator would be that the Dogs are not a distant 18th in terms of hit outs once the season is over and done with. An old warhorse to absorb the heat could allow a young stallion like English to really find his niche at AFL level. That Dogs midfield with a ruck duo providing them first possession without having to scrap for it at every stoppage… they’d be licking their lips.

 

SYDNEY SWANS

 

WILL HAYWARD

Jump into the Mongrel Time Machine (a Delorean, for those playing at home) and head back to 2018 with me. All strapped in? Let’s go.

It’s Round 12 and the Swans have just dispensed with the Saints, moving to an impressive 9-3 record. Things are humming along nicely, with their forward line running on all cylinders. At this point it would be impossible to ignore the work of 19 year old Will Hayward.

With 21 goals in his first 12 games, he is proving to be an opportunistic forward with a touch of magic about him – I have likened him to Stevie Johnson at points. He has multiple goals on eight occasions thus far and is starting to have people utter the words “All” and “Australian” in rapid succession. Well, I was starting to think he might give it a shake, anyway.

Hayward fell away in the second half of the season, finishing with 28 goals from 23 games, but the talent was undeniable.

Jump back to the present day and Hayward has not progressed. If anything, his immense talent and lack of consistency have led John Longmire to play him as a defensive forward to get the best out of him. Mongrel going out on a limb here – Will Hayward – a motivated Will Hayward – has the capacity to be one of the top mid-size forwards in the game and could potentially be a game-changer for the Swans.

He is 22 years old with his best football ahead of him and if he can replicate his 2018 and build on it, the Swans have a star on their hands.

 

GEORGE HEWETT

A bit of a forgotten man in the Swans’ midfield rotation, Hewett spent the majority of 2021 on the sidelines after looking as though he was ready to relieve Josh Kennedy of the bulk of the inside work in 2019.

Hewett averaged four clearances per game in 2019, which put him behind Kennedy and Luke Parker, but the signs were there, and Hewett was able to get his hands on the pill whilst limiting the influence of his direct opponent as well.

What does a return to form from Hewett in 2021 mean for the Swans?

They have cultivated the development of James Rowbottom well, and if they can ease some of the load on Kennedy, it could turn this midfield unit into one of the best contested footy groups in the game.

Hewett gets no air time. He gets no love from the AFL Media and outside chats with Sydney supporters, you’ll not hear his name mentioned, but his value and potential value to their side is immense. A stopper that grabs 20 touches and four clearances himself – there is a reason Carlton fans love Ed Curnow; that’s the sort of production he provides them, and he also does it without his name in flashing neon lights. Every team needs a player like Curnow – Hewett can be that man for the Swans.

Hell, he’s already been that man.

 

JORDAN DAWSON

So I stuck my neck out a bit on the Will Hayward section – here’s another one.

Jordan Dawson could very well make the AA Squad of forty if Longmire plays him at half-back all season in 2021.

Is that too much of a stretch? I don’t think so.

Dawson has a leg cannon that makes him an absolute weapon as he comes off half-back, and with Rampe and Lloyd to combine with, he will get plenty of opportunity to turn defence into attack for the Swans. With a ripping pair of hands, his intercept work in 2020 was eye-catching, but I cannot help but feel Dawson is the sort of player that can not only impact the game from half-back – I can see him hurting teams on the scoreboard as well. This new man on the mark interpretation (which I reckon will be rolled back by about Round Three, by the way) could really work for him.

As stated, Rampe and Lloyd as significant factors for the Swans and rebound plenty of the ball. What I’d love to see from Dawson is for him to start running from defence to provide a marking option up on the wing as Sydney exit defence. From there – screw it – I want him to do everything in his power to draw a 50m penalty. Whether he hesitates and feigns giving a handball, or takes a half step, but not enough to be called to play on, I want him to tempting that bloke on the mark to take a step sideways – just one step.

The next thing you know, Dawson is either sending the ball to the top of the square or having a shot.

Yeah, it’s underhanded and maybe not in the spirit of the game, but when AFL rule-makers play stupid games, they win stupid prizes.

Irrespective of the last bit, Dawson could morph into one of the most damaging half-backs in the game in 2021. He is 24, he has 41 games to his name, and I get the feeling he is ready to make his mark in this league.

 

ISAAC HEENEY

Every time I hear about Heeney, it is either to praise how good he could be, or lament his latest injury setback.

Sydney needs a new superstar, and whilst it is probably unfair to hit Heeney with that label, he has positioned himself incredibly well to be the poster boy of the Swans for the next few years. Could he be the superstar they need? That remains to be seen – superstars are great for a number of years. Heeney was good and promising to be better for three straight campaigns with little movement in terms of results.

Don’t believe me? Here we go.

2017 – 20.55 touches over 20 games, whilst averaging 0.8 goals per game

2018 – 20.36 touches over 22 games whilst averaging 0.8 goals per game

2019 – 20.05 touches over 22 games whilst averaging 1.1 goals per game

2020 was a lost year, with Heeney playing just six games but his returns of 14.3 touches and 1.1 goals indicate that he didn’t tear games to bits often enough either.

I’ve found the term “superstar” gets bandied around a bit too often. If 2021 is the season that Heeney takes the bit between the teeth and earns that mantle, then the Swans’ rebuild and youth movement will take a huge leap forward. Hell, even a 20 touches and 1.1 goal version of Heeney for the entire year would be beneficial, but it’s nothing we’ve not seen before and honestly, we need to see a bit more from Heeney.

 

ESSENDON BOMBERS

 

MASON REDMAN

There is a hole that needs filling in this Essendon line up, and there are a couple of players that should be putting their hand up for the job.

With the exit of Adam Saad and the retirement of Conor McKenna, the run from defence for the Bombers has become an issue. Yes, I know McKenna played forward in 2020 and I also know that it was a) a terrible idea and b) pretty weak of the club to give in to the demands of a player that seemed pretty difficult to work with. Alas, he played there and now that part of the story is well and truly over.

The Bombers picked up Nick Hind from St Kilda who was looking for more opportunity, but the ball well and truly lies in the court of Mason Redman as we head into the 2021 season.

I was impressed with the run and dash of Redman in 2019. With 17 touches per game over his 20 outings, he looked to be ready-made to become Essendon’s next prolific half-back, but just as 2020 knocked most people on their backsides, the same happened to Redman and he returned 13 games with a 12.23 disposal average. In a season I expected him to step up, he stepped aside.

Does Redman have it in him to become the go-to man in the Essendon defence in terms of rebounding the footy? Can he provide the dash and dare they require to kick start the Bombers’ running machine?

Or will a lack of output from him force Essendon to look at Hind, or Tom Cutler… maybe even Brayden Ham as the player they need running off half-back? The loss of Saad and McKenna closed one door but opened one for Redman. He needs to put his shoulder against it and muscle it all the way open this season to establish himself as their best option back there. At 23, his time is now.

 

AARON FRANCIS

A high draft pick, a man who looked as though he wasn’t sure about the club at one stage, and a man who has enormous potential to be either a very good intercept defender or, as Jack Dyer would say, a “good ordinary player.”

That’s what Essendon have right now in Aaron Francis.

He is a number six pick, so the talent was identified early, but I am not sure that Francis has the confidence in his own abilities or the desire to be all that he could be. I know that is making quite the pair of assumptions, but from the outside looking in, Francis appears to be like me in an art class – all the tools are there to use… he just really doesn’t want to paint.

He played 17 games in 2019 and over his other four seasons with the Bombers, has added 18 more, including just eight in 2020. With Cale Hooker looking more and more like a container ship when he has to turn corners, and Michael Hurley somehow getting a hip infection – seriously, how do you infect your hip? – the role of Francis in defence will be pivotal to the Bombers.

Looking forward, it is the threesome (bum chick wow wow) of Francis, Brandon Zerk-Thatcher and reigning best and fairest, Jordan Ridley that will power this Essendon defence into the next five years, but how effective it is may depend on whether Francis pulls his finger out and knuckles down, or continues his flatlining trajectory.

In the games he played in 2020, he ranked eighth at Essendon for average intercept possessions. That needs to change to be top-three in 2021.

 

JAYDEN LAVERDE

He threatens a bit, doesn’t he?

I was always told never to fear a person that makes threats – the ones that don’t threaten and just get the job done are the ones to watch. Laverde needs to make that transition as soon as possible.

He has played double-digit games just once in his six seasons with the club and has really just produced the same footy, year after year. Looking at his impact, stats-wise, there is little variation in his numbers, but going back to the premise at the beginning of this article, he fits right in with the “someone who has taken a while to get it” category.

The player Laverde needs to be already exists elsewhere. It is Mitch Wallis at the Bulldogs. It is Cam Zurhaar at North Melbourne. It is a Jordan de Goey-lite at Collingwood.

Another season of 11 touches and around a goal from ten games is simply not enough from Laverde. He is 24 years old. He has a man’s body – time to start imposing himself on games and make the Bombers better in the process.

 

PETER WRIGHT

Out with Joe Daniher, who clearly didn’t want to put the effort in at Essendon, anymore, and in with Peter Wright, who could really go either way at his new club.

Picked up for a future fourth round selection… so really, for nothing, being traded could be the kick in the pants that Peter Wright needed. He was the key forward target in a Gold Coast team that basically couldn’t go forward effectively in 2018/19 and then, as the team actually started to find a way to hit the scoreboard, he was relegated to the grandstand as the Suns invested in the future, via Ben King.

There is a sense that Wright brought a little of his bad luck on himself with some uninspiring performances, but really, wasn’t the entire 2018/19 Suns team uninspiring? I’m sure there is a bit of Wright being dragged down by the collective… well, shitness of the team during that period.

He is 24 years old, has good hands, and has a season where he’s kicked 30+ goals (he was 21 at the time). There is plenty to work with here and those writing him off may be in for a huge shock. The Suns were dead last in inside 50s in 2019. They were dead last in effective disposals, marks inside 50 and contested grabs as well. Wright will be better off with the Bombers and a season of 30+ goals, health and complete fixture notwithstanding, is achievable again with the right supports and halfway-decent delivery.

Could be one of the surprises of the season.

 

WEST COAST EAGLES

 

JAKE WATERMAN

Oscar Allen this… Oscar Allen that…

Do you think Jake Waterman sometimes goes and stand in front of a mirror just to make sure he’s not invisible?

Now entering his fourth season with the club, Jake Waterman should be ready to cement his place in the West Coast side. He has 39 games under his belt and clocks in at a fraction under a goal per game, but with his underrated marking ability and explosiveness, you get the feeling that he has been flying under the radar…

… but that can only last so long.

Another season under the radar of the AFL media would be seen as a failure for Waterman. He has all the skills to become a fantastic marking mid-size forward but the fact he plays with Darling, Kennedy, Ryan, Cripps and yes, Oscar Allen, means that Waterman is often overlooked when it comes to the potency of the West Coast forward line.

And it is up to him to change that.

Whilst Allen is the anointed replacement for Kennedy when he hangs up the boots, is there a case that could be made for Waterman? Or does Waterman need to make that case, himself?

His best return in a season to this point of his career was 2019, where he averaged 12.08 touches and 1.15 goals per game. That’s the baseline to build on. Waterman needs to muscle his way into the conversation at West Coast. People are not going to willingly step aside for him – he needs to make this happen in 2021. 15 touches and 1.5 goals per game will have him out from under the radar and carving his own path in the league.

And it’ll switch up that West Coast forward line just a little more to keep defences on their toes. If Waterman performs, Kennedy, Darling and Ryan are more effective.

 

TIM KELLY

He wasn’t bad by any stretch in 2020, was he? But he didn’t star, either.

Tim Kelly had the eyes of the footy world on him last season. In a huge trade, he was able to head home to the west and play for his preferred club. After two brilliant seasons for the Cats, he got where he wanted to go and was expected to make a huge splash.

And that may have been a little unfair on him.

I like to see players have 12 months to acclimatise to new surroundings, and really, Kelly was always going to play a different role at Wast Coast than he did at Geelong. He was given free rein at the Cattery and relished the opportunity. Really, he was second only to Dangerfield and there was even conjecture about that in some circles. With the Eagles, he had to adjust to playing with Shuey, Yeo, Sheed, Redden and Gaff. He was part of a rotation as opposed to being one of two main parts at Geelong. There were bound to be teething problems.

Still, that spotlight was shining on him brightly as the Eagles played the Pies in the first week of finals, and under pressure from Levi Greenwood, Kelly wilted.

He will need to rectify this in 2021.

What does a Tim Kelly in full flight mean to this Eagles team? Well, with Yeo struggling to get right and both Shuey and Redden on the wrong side of thirty, Kelly’s time has to be right now. This is the period where he can prove that all the Eagles gave up for him was worth it. He can put this midfield on his back and draw the heat. Not just draw it, but handle it and overcome it.

That’s what the Eagles wanted when they brought Tim Kelly on board. That’s what they need. If they get it in 2021, they contend and it’s as simple as that.

 

ALEX WITHERDEN

Well, he is going to be learning from a couple of the best, isn’t he?

In truth, Witherden had a bitterly disappointing 2020 campaign, pushed out of a contending Brisbane side by a couple of yoing players in Answerth and Starcevich who, simply put, just wanted it more. Is this an area of concern for the Eagles? Or are they confident that they can light the competitive fire under Witherden that will allow him to build on what was a very promising career in the making until the 2020 season?

Managing just six games last season, Witherden averaged 19.17 touches and four rebounds per game, which is not too far removed from his normal output when you factor in the shorter games. If this bloke gets serious about his footy, cracks in and cements himself as the understudy to the resolute defence of former captain, Shannon Hurn, his acquisition, which cost West Coast the equivalent of a bag of chips, could prove to be one of the best moves of the off-season.

 

ANDREW GAFF

A strange one, right?

Not really, when you think about it. What do you expect to see when you watch Andrew Gaff play footy? Power running? Run and carry to set up quick attacks into forward 50 and give Kennedy and Darling every chance at a one-on-one? Hard bodywork at the stoppages???

One of these things doesn’t belong, does it? Yet over the last two seasons, we’ve found Gaff spending too much time drawn to the contest where he resorts to throwing the footy at his boot to gain metres and little else. I thought the recruitment of Tim Kelly would id in rectifying this, but due to other injuries (Redden/Shuey/Yeo) we once again saw Gaff drawn closer and closer to the contest, leaving inexperienced wingmen such as Jarrod Brander and Brayden Ainsworth to offer the run and spread. They fought on well, but they are no Andrew Gaff.

The Eagles are in a tough spot. Gaff is capable of winning his own footy – he is no Brad Hill. He can get in there, grab the pill and get rid of it, but it is not his preferred game. A running, gunning Andrew Gaff makes the Eagles a hell of a lot more dangerous, but it is up to the other midfielders and their health to allow him to play the role he is best in.

 

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