One of the highest anticipations at the dawn of a new season for the vast majority of AFL fans is the unveiling of their club’s offseason draftees and new recruits. Some clubs have loaded up on draft picks and unleashed an all-out assault on youth at the national draft, or perhaps they’ve traded away picks in the chase of recruiting that big-name star, or the underperforming smokey that you hope to get the best out of in a new environment. Hopes are pinned at their highest early on in the season as most of us have clicked the baiting hype articles released by the clubs, and heard the inevitable commentary of who has been ‘training the house down’.
Some clubs have a rather successful history of poaching players from other clubs that have failed to reach the heights of their ability (I’m looking at you Hawthorn and Geelong). Sometimes players leave their clubs on good terms chasing further opportunities elsewhere, or moving interstate for family reasons. Occasionally, a player can leave under a veil of controversy which can lead to tensions between the club’s involved and a heated rivalry on the back of said discord.
Today I’m going to delve into the draftees and recruits unveiled by Essendon so far in season 2021. After a telling offseason that saw three of their high profile players seek trades to other clubs amongst a plethora of draft pick exchanges, the Bombers appear to have made the very, very best of their draft situation – however, the proof is still very much in its adolescence.
Under new coach Ben Rutten and new club president Paul Brasher, Essendon have opted to hit the draft heavily in the wake of losing three senior players, using the subsequent high draft picks received in trades and compensation to bring in talented younger players as opposed to using their high draft picks to trade up for established talent as they’ve done in recent years with the acquisition of players such as Devon Smith, Jake Stringer, Adam Saad, Dylan Shiel, Tom Cutler and Andrew Phillips.
The Bombers have been unafraid to play their younger players so far in season 2021. Ben Rutten and those in charge have implemented a range of new initiatives around the club to boost morale, raise the inclusiveness of teammates and develop a sense of pride for the club that they’re playing for with a high emphasis on the club’s rich history. One such initiative was undertaken earlier in the year when each player was presented with their playing guernsey, they were required to contact a past player that wore that number for the club and arrange a meeting with them to discuss what it means to wear that jumper and represent the club. Regular training sessions at the club’s spiritual home of Windy Hill as well as a vast array of community work are just a few steps in the right direction that the club are taking to establish a new culture and build a solid foundation for more competitive, quality football into the future.
(Article was written at the conclusion of round 14 2021. All stats, figures and opinions were based on form and facts accurate to this date)
Draft Pick: #30, 2019 National Draft
It has recently been revealed that a phone call from Jones to Essendon list manager Adrian Dodoro after not being selected on the first night of the draft was the catalyst for Dodoro organising a belated pick swap with North Melbourne to improve their position. Essendon held pick 35 and with Jones ensuring Dodoro that he was dedicated and wanted to play for Essendon right or wrong being a lifelong supporter of the club, the Bombers were convinced to a shuffle of draft picks which resulted in them receiving pick 30 off the Kangaroos that they ultimately used on Jones.
Position: Full Forward
Debut: Round 1, 2021 vs Hawthorn
Best game: Round 7, 2021 vs Carlton.
Although Jones received a Rising Star nomination for his two goals and five contested marks against Hawthorn in Round 13, his best game for the club so far came back in Round 7 against the Blues. In a high scoring game that saw Cale Hooker kick five goals, Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti kick four and both Jones and Jake Stringer kick three a piece, Jones’ marking and forward presence were simply undeniable as he competed well against quality defenders such as Jacob Weitering and Sam Docherty. He finished the game with eight marks, five of those contested and three goals.
Highlight: In his dominant game against Carlton, Jones became the second fastest player in history to achieve 5+ contested marks in a game on more than one occasion. Reaching this point faster than other players high on the list such as Jeremy McGovern, Luke McPharlin, Joe Daniher, Harry McKay and Liam Jones.
Impressive Stats: 18.6 goals scored for the season. After kicking 0.3 in his debut game, Harry Jones has gone on to kick 18.3 since, proving to be one of the team’s more accurate shots on goal.
Conclusion: 2020 was primed to be a breakout season for Harrison Jones. With Joe Daniher in and out of the team with reoccurring injuries, there were vacancies available for a tall forward. A stress fracture in his foot derailed his plans to make his debut and cost him his opportunity to play in 2020. After impressing in the intra-club practice matches and the scratch match against GWS in the off-season, we knew it was going to be a good year for the young budding forward. From all reports Jones is the sort of player who oozes dedication, consistently being the first one on the training track and the last to call it stumps. Former Calder Cannons talent manager and Geelong premiership defender Tom Lonergan told a story from one of the Cannons’ training camps, after dinner the young players scurried off to make the most of their free time playing basketball or on their phones. One player remained in the dining hall, sweeping the floors and cleaning the tables – Harry Jones. Awesome signs that a young player from a good family has great morals and respectful values. Enter season 2021 and he has slotted into the Bombers’ forward line tremendously. Becoming a handy partner alongside Cale Hooker, we’ve seen Jones show impressive skills in creating space for himself and fellow forwards, as well as a great set of hands and impeccable timing above his head and below his knees. If he continues on his current trajectory he’ll become a talented mainstay in this Bombers forward attack for many years to come.
Draft Pick: #8, 2020 National Draft
(Originally Pick #6 before prior draft bids)
Position: Forward/Defender (being used as a wingman/utility around the ground so far)
Debut: Round 1, 2021 vs Hawthorn
Best game: Round 12, 2021 vs Richmond
In a hotly contested game where the Bombers would just not let the Tigers get a strong run at it for the most part, Nik Cox put on a brilliant all-round display and finished the game amongst Essendon’s best players. He spent time on the wing, he spent time up forward, he spent time in the ruck and he spent time down back. He finished the game with 23 disposals, eight marks, seven score involvements, four clearances, two hitouts and a goal. He was a constant threat on the wing and was a regular participant in Essendon’s rapid ball movement from defence, earning himself Essendon’s first Rising Star nomination for the season.
Highlight: His mere existence is a highlight if you ask Luke Darcy or the general AFL media. Cox has been a passenger aboard the media hype train so far this season. Largely because he’s 200cm and is fast and agile enough to play as a wingman, has a great set of hands, is a long kick of the footy and can use the ball proficiently on either side of his body. One of his true highlights that really showcased his ability was against Sydney in round 4, late in the first quarter the ball was cleared from the centre by McGrath, kicked forward in space ahead of Cox and his opponent, Cox managed to run past the opposition players, bend and scoop the ball of the ground with one hand in a swift motion, darting inside 50 and drilling a running shot on goal. Many heads were turned when he started his career on a wing, but seeing the way he plays first hand has opened the eyes of many to what his coaches see in him and his ability going forward.
Impressive Stats: 77% disposal efficiency, 71% by foot. Whilst he’s not accumulating mammoth disposal numbers, Cox is generally efficient with ball in hand. A very handy attribute to have for a player whose role involves getting the ball forward and setting up the next link in the forward pressing chain. Another stat that impresses me is that he’s had 17 shots on goal and kicked 8.8 so far this season. Whilst his goal accuracy could be better, the fact that he’s had almost 20 shots on goal is admirable. Any team would be thrilled if their wingman was averaging more than a shot on goal per game, even more so if he’s nailing more than half of them.
Conclusion: Much has already been said about Nik Cox, his height, his ability despite his height and his future potential. Ben Rutten had him training with the midfield group and the forwards from day one, obviously the coaching staff saw enough in Cox early on to make the decision. He is the sort of player that with his attributes will be quite the hole-plugger or a Mr. Fix-it of sorts. It’s his first season and we’ve already seen him take on some of the game’s best current ruckmen in small stints, start the game at the centre bounce, be thrown in the forward line to mix it up when goals aren’t coming and running up and down the ground like a genuine wingman. The future is bright for the Bombers’ newest utility.
Draft Pick: #9, 2020 National Draft.
(Originally Pick #7 before draft bidding)
Pick received as compensation for losing free agent Joe Daniher.
Debut: Round 3, 2021 vs St. Kilda
Best game: Round 7, 2021 vs Carlton
In what was one of the highest-scoring games so far this season, both teams were flexing their midfield muscles. Carlton with Walsh, Cripps and Curnow, Essendon with Merrett, Parish and McGrath. Throughout this season we’ve seen Archie Perkins thrown in different roles throughout the midfield and high half-forward. He had his time running alongside Sam Walsh and spent a bit of time up forward where he had three shots on goal but unfortunately couldn’t convert, finishing the game on 0.2. However it was his effort in the midfield, rubbing shoulders with players of that ilk, he managed 18 disposals, 12 score involvements, six marks, four tackles, three goal assists and three clearances. Sometimes these numbers may not seem that impressive, but when you keep in mind that this is a player who is 19 years old and played zero football for 12 months during the heights of the Covid pandemic in Melbourne, it was an impressive display.
Highlight: Finally kicking his first goal after a string of five behinds was a highlight as the entire team raced to get around him. So far Perkins’ highlights can be found when scouring through hours of game tape. His highlights aren’t big goals, flashy marks or bone-crunching tackles. But they’re more found in his intent and pure football actions. Often his second and third efforts at the contest, his quick disposal to get the ball to a teammate and his ability to lower the eyes and pick out a forward when kicking inside 50 are glowing highlights for the hard, gritty midfielder-come-forward who is still finding his feet and cementing his role in the team.
Impressive Stats: Much like Nik Cox, Perkins is averaging a shot on goal per game. For a player who’s spent so much time directly on the ball or in a defensive half forward role, it’s promising to see him getting his shots, unfortunately, his radar is currently an issue. Once he finds his feet and settles into his role, I have no doubt he’ll develop into exactly the kind of explosive player the Bombers saw in him when they recruited him. He already has the confidence of a player with 50+ games under this belt, and he’s still a teenager.
Conclusion: Depending on where Essendon end up playing Perkins in the future, the proposition of someone with the skills of Perkins is promising. His first season will likely be chalked up as a development year as he adapts to the pressure and rigours of full-time football at the highest level. But once the Bombers and Perkins find the position that suits his mature body and his athletic tank, his true skills will begin to flourish. Going forward he’s likely to spend the majority of his time in and out of the midfield and the forward line.
Draft Pick: #10, 2020 National Draft
(Originally Pick #8 before draft bidding)
Pick received from Carlton as part of the Adam Saad trade.
Position: Full Back
Debut: Round 5, 2021 vs Brisbane
Best game: Having only played one senior game, Zach’s profile will be written based on that game and his VFL form.
Highlight: In his debut game, a wet and miserable game against Brisbane, the Bombers couldn’t handle the conditions at all as the Lions piled on goal after goal. Standing strong in defence was Reid who finished the game with 70% of his disposals being contested, nine intercepts and five tackles. In what was a game that his team would like to forget and put behind them, Reid showed lots of promise.
Impressive Stats: Nine intercepts on debut was impressive. As Brisbane’s four main forwards combined for nine goals in the wet, Reid held his own in a backline that was under heavy fire.
Conclusion: Rated as one of the best tall prospects in his draft crop, Reid is an excellent decision-maker. Seeing him at VFL level he plays a lot like teammate Jordan Ridley – accuracy, poise and always makes it seem like he has an eternity to dispose of the ball as if time slows around him. He has been compared to former bomber Dustin Fletcher due to his tall stature and long, spoiling arms. After a chunk of his first season has seen him sidelined with a nasty bout of glandular fever, his return to the field has commenced with a slow, cautious approach.
Draft Pick: #38, 2019 National Draft
Debut: Round 7, 2021 vs Carlton
Best game: Having only played one senior game, Nick’s profile will be written based on that game and his VFL form.
Highlight: Finishing his first senior game with 20 pressure acts, 18 hitouts, 12 disposals, four clearances, four score involvements, three tackles and two spoils, highlighting his ability in the ruck, to win the ball at ground level and assist the midfielders in clearing the ball from the centre. He was a regular link in forward play and despite his light stature, looked right at home with a tremendous leap. His disposal efficiency was 84% and he went at 100% by foot.
Impressive Stats: After averaging 20 disposals and 32 hitouts in his first few weeks in the VFL, Bryan won his spot in the senior team to replace a minor injury that kept Andrew Phillips out of the side. Taking on Carlton, the 19-year-old may have looked like he’d blow away on a windy day, but he well and truly held his own against a hardened, senior body of Marc Pittonet in the ruck.
Conclusion: With Sam Draper set to assume the mantle as Essendon’s number one ruckman to replace Tom Bellchambers upon his retirement, Essendon were desperate to recruit a second young ruckman for depth and flexibility. With a lack of quality ruck prospects coming through the draft in recent years compared to those in previous drafts, the Bombers jumped on Nick Bryan at pick 38. He was always planned to spend a couple of years working on his physique and building up his craft before becoming a one-two ruck/forward punch with Sam Draper. His stature and game style are similar to that of Bulldog Tim English. Yet another Victorian who suffered through lack of gametime throughout 2020 due to the Covid pandemic, if not for Andrew Phillips playing his role well in the injury absence of Sam Draper, Nick Bryan would’ve almost certainly won more senior game time this season.
Recruited From: GWS
Club Debut: Round 1, 2021 vs Hawthorn
Best game: Round 1, 2021 vs Hawthorn
Highlight: Caldwell’s first game for the Bombers was a strong one, highlighting why the club was so keen to recruit him in the first place. Before the seemingly obvious revelation of Darcy Parish as a ball winning inside-mid, Caldwell looked to have filled that void perfectly. In his first game for the club. Going head to head with Tom Mitchell and Jaeger O’Meara, Caldwell finished the game with 22 disposals, nine tackles, seven score involvements, three clearances, three intercepts and a shot on goal.
Impressive Stats: Caldwell like Shiel and Draper only managed a single game in round one before the trio were injured in round two against Port Adelaide. Draper has since returned, however, the injuries to Shiel and Caldwell will be longer term recoveries. In his first game and bit, Caldwell averaged over six tackles a game. His intensity at the contest and lightning-quick handballs had Bombers fans salivating as it appeared they’d finally found a replacement for Jobe Watson to go in and win the hardball at the contest.
Conclusion: It was with great irony that Jye Caldwell would eventually join the Bombers. Prior to being drafted by GWS, he was a player that was firmly on the radar of Essendon recruiters. Funnily enough, the Bombers would trade the pick that they had hoped to draft him with to GWS as part of the Dylan Shiel trade. In a full-circle kind of way, the Bombers ended up with both Dylan Shiel and Jye Caldwell. With 2021 being all but a write off for Caldwell, it’ll be all focus on recovering from his hamstring injury which he re-injured shortly before his planned return to football. Having requested a move from the Giants in search of more midfield time, he will have to be at his absolute ball-winning best to break back into this side, especially given the rise of Darcy Parish and the continuity shown by Zach Merrett.
Recruited From: Gold Coast
Club Debut: Round 1, 2021 vs Hawthorn
Best game: Round 10, 2021 vs North Melbourne
Coming into this game, his previous best game had been his colossal effort on Anzac Day where he kicked two goals and was powerful overheard, clunking four contested marks. Against the Kangaroos, Wright showed us another level to his game. He kicked 3.2 for the game which should’ve been at least four goals, however, he left the ground after being awarded a free kick in front of goal due to the blood rule. He was a strong backup in the ruck for Andrew Phillips with the pair performing a commendable job against the dominant Todd Goldstein and his understudy Tom Campbell. Wright would also finish the game with eight score involvements and a direct goal assist.
Highlight: As mentioned, Wright’s highlight has been his strong contested marking. When he’s marking the ball strongly at its highest point or coming across above or in front of a pack, he tends to be kicking goals and making his presence known in the air. Finding a way to keep in the game and not being worked under the ball at regular contests are little things that could be improved in the latter half of the season.
Impressive Stats: Going at a goal a game since his debut in Round 1 is a good starting point, however, I feel the Bombers will be now looking to get more out of Wright throughout the games. Especially with an array of talls playing in the two’s, waiting for their chance to earn a call-up.
Conclusion: The next step would be for Wright to command more of the ball in the forward line, especially with Sam Draper back to assume the number one ruckman role. If he can find a way to gel in sync with Harry Jones and Cale Hooker, he’ll be a commodity up forward and around the ground. There has been a knock that Wright is a little lazy and wants to remain deep forward and avoid ruck contests or exerting himself in a contest. With Cox working towards being an able secondary ruckman, plus the likes of Nick Bryan patiently biding his time in the VFL, Peter Wright would benefit from willing himself in every contest available and finding the scoreboard. As a bloke who stands two metres tall, there’s a certain expectation on your output and ability.
Recruited From: St. Kilda
Position: Half Back
Club Debut: Round 1, 2021 vs Hawthorn
Best game: Round 9, 2021 vs Fremantle
Laying down his strongest hand, Nick Hind finished the game against the Dockers in blistering pace. Carving them up from the backline and linking up excellently through the centre, Hind had a game to remember as he racked up 32 disposals, eight marks with two contested, six intercepts, three tackles and more metres gained than any player on the ground.
Highlight: Although he may have only kicked two goals for the year, both of them have been electrifying. His first came against North Melbourne where Hind made a lead inside the forward 50 and marked the ball, the umpire called not 15 metres, play on, and instinctively before the umpire had called it, Hind knew that he wasn’t going to be paid a mark so the crafty former goalsneak played on in the same running motion from marking the ball and snapped truly from the packet, nailing a perfect running snap for his first goal as a Bomber. His second goal for the year came against the Hawks in round 14, after Zach Merrett won the ball and handballed back to a forward running Hind, the two would continue running forward as Hind chipped the ball over to Darcy Parish who’s quick hands hit Merrett directly as Merrett dished a handball back to Hind who had continued his run through the centre square, taking a bounce before sending off a drop punt from outside the 50m arc that sailed through for a scintillating goal.
Impressive Stats: Averaging almost five score involvements a game is indicative of the style of game Essendon are playing. With their slingshot rebound from the backline, they use the speed of Hind and his willingness to take the game on to start their transition of run through the midfield. He’s also been able to play the other way and man up on some of the game’s most dangerous small forwards.
Conclusion: If I’m being honest, Nick Hind has hardly looked poor at all this season. Going from strength to strength, the VFL Bomber turned Saint has slotted seamlessly into the Bombers backline, filling what many expected to be an untenable void left by the loss of Adam Saad after requesting a trade to Carlton. His trademark run off half back and linkup football through the centre have easily covered for the loss of Saad, with Hind proving to be a massive asset for the club which they paid peanuts for.
Recruited From: West Coast
Club Debut: Round 3, 2021 vs St. Kilda
Best game: His debut game against the Saints was impressive, Waterman played quite a hand up forward kicking 2.2 himself but also having nine score involvements and three direct goal assists in what turned out to be a dominant, high scoring game from the Bombers forwards.
Highlight: Finding space, marking truely and kicking the sealer against your former club would be a sweet feeling for Alec Waterman, especially given his younger brother had made his debut for the opposition that evening. That’s exactly what transpired in Round 11 when Essendon beat West Coast at Optus Stadium.
Impressive Stats: Waterman has kicked two goals in four of his seven games for the Bombers. His tackling pressure up forward is also noteworthy.
Conclusion: One of the feel-good stories of 2021, after being drafted by West Coast in 2014 as a father-son prospect, Waterman would contract glandular fever which would lead him to discover that he had chronic fatigue, which then turned into adrenal fatigue. With no prescription available, Waterman spent the best part of 18 months bedridden, eventually being delisted by the Eagles in 2016. Biding his time he impressed the Bombers who let him train with them during the Supplementary Selection Period where clubs can recruit a player that they have registered to train with them. After a dominant preseason game against Carlton where he kicked 4 goals in a quarter, Waterman cemented his spot and has managed seven games this season to date.
It has been a successful year for the Bombers this year in terms of blooding new players and debutants. It’s been a very long time since the club has had such a promising group of young draftees that show this much promise and manage to play so regularly. It really seems that Ben Rutten and co. have got this team heading in the right direction. They’re not afraid to play the kids and they’re playing gallantly against top sides. With a dedication to youth and a policy that doesn’t see their younger players omitted after a single poor performance are paying dividends with their new draftees being afforded the luxury of consistent game time.
That sums up Essendon’s 2021 debutants to date. Be sure to check back later in the year as I write a follow-up piece to compare how well these first-year players and new recruits rounded out their 2021 seasons.