I’ve been looking forward to diving into this one.

After a September appearance, the Bombers find themselves preparing to make a legitimate run in 2022.

With a midfield stronger than it’s been in years, a group of highly-talented kids coming through, and key players entering their peak years, Essendon are poised to launch at the new season with optimism. How far can they go?

Over the last month, I have been slowly compiling questions relating to each team to include in our season previews. There were so many questions in need of answers. When I finally sat down and started the previews, it quickly became apparent these articles were going to be huge. There were simply too many things in need of addressing.

So, the way this is going to work is that the first five questions are available for free for each team, to whet your appetite and the next 14 are for our members.

So, it’s a ploy to get people to join the site?

Ummmm, yeah, kind of, but it is also about providing value for those who support what we do here and enjoy the content – those who are already onboard. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

I am aiming to provide the most comprehensive team previews out there, so if you like sinking your teeth into articles with a bit of meat on the bone, that’s what you’re getting here. No flippantly thrown together article with a stupid prediction at the end – I’ll leave that to those with restrictions on word counts and pressure to make space for gambling ads. We’re diving deep.

So, without further ado, here are The Big Questions regarding the Bombers in 2022.

 

WHO GETS LEFT OUT OF THE MIDFIELD SQUEEZE?

This is a pretty good problem to have. Too many good mids and not enough space for them all.

Remember back to the trade period following the 2020 season? Desperate for an inside presence, the Bombers went after Josh Dunkley, and they went hard! It was a gutsy move from Adrian Dodoro and the club – I really liked it, but the Dogs wanted more than the Bombers were willing to pay, so Dunkley remained at the kennel and Essendon remained without an inside midfielder. For a while, anyway.

How quickly things change…

As you know, I am a bloke, and with blokes, there is a way we treat injuries and things that go wrong that doesn’t necessarily sit well with our partners. We ignore things and hope they get better by themselves.

Look, we know that it doesn’t work more often than not, but sometimes, it does – the problem resolves itself and we go on our merry ways. Sometimes, all it takes is a little patience.

Yes, patience… exactly what it took for Darcy Parish to grow into the player in the role the Bombers were trying so desperately to fill.

With Dylan Shiel hurt in Round Two and new recruit, Jye Caldwell joining him the next week, there was a crisis/opportunity in the Essendon midfield. Andrew McGrath sensed it and looked as though he was ready to have a breakout season – something that was due – but he was hurt in Round 12 and it more or less destroyed the remainder of his year.

As much as Essendon would have enjoyed having their full contingent of midfielders to choose from, the silver lining around this dark injury cloud came in the form of Darcy Parish and Zach Merrett.

Whilst Merrett had been a long-term star of the game, rating in the top ten for Brownlow votes over the last five years, the emergence of Darcy Parish as a  legitimate midfield star took even the most ardent supporter somewhat by surprise.

We saw the coming of age of Parish in 2021, eliminating the need for the Bombers to go shopping for an inside mid on the end of season meat market. They found what they needed by giving him the opportunity he was denied under John Worsfold. Ben Rutten let the genie out of the bottle, and Darcy Parish worked his magic.

I’ll get into Parish a little more later, but what this has done is create a bit of a squeeze in the middle at Essendon. Crazy to think that, really – a couple of years ago they looked brittle in the middle. Now, it looks as though it will be their greatest strength headed into 2022.

Merrett, Parish, McGrath, Shiel, Caldwell, with Stringer pinch-hitting and Langford and Cox out on the wings… something has to give. Who will it be?

Though we have rotations that will likely see all have their turn, the three that should spend the most time in the middle are Merrett, Parish and Shiel. Where does that leave the others?

McGrath has played off half-back in the past and will likely be asked to spend time there again. Caldwell is an interesting one. Still just 21, he has time on his side, but he moved to this team to be part of a midfield. He won’t be content with a half-forward role with sporadic time in the guts. However, he will need to push one of the established guys out to play in his preferred position. And Stringer will push one out when the team needs a clearance. He is a bull in the contest and the fact he averaged 3.16 centre clearances per game – second only to Parish despite limited periods in the middle – demonstrates how valuable he is at extracting the footy.

Essendon moved from having a perceived problem with the depth of their midfield to having a different, better sort of problem within 12 months. Whilst injury will no doubt have a say in terms of who plays where and how often they do so, as we head into the 2022 season, having too many mids to choose from and too many options in terms of combinations is not where many thought the team would be 12 months ago.

Most times, things don’t fix themselves of their own volition. But sometimes… they do.

 

DO WE SEE THE SAME LEVEL OF DESPERATION FROM JAKE STRINGER IN 2022?

I hope so, because watching him play footy at the level he did last season was an absolute joy.

That said, there be cynics amongst us. You know the ones – they may hope for the best but they expect the worst. Misery loves company and they want yours.

They will point out that Stringer was in a contract year in 2021 and his performance largely influenced the length of deal and with it, the amount of coin associated with his new contract. They will argue he has what he was after and will now be content with his place in the game.

Do they have a point? We’ll soon find out.

I loved what Stringer was able to do with the Dogs, but as we put 2021 in the rearview mirror, I think it is safe to say that in terms of influence, he has never had a bigger impact on a team and the way they play than he had at the Bombers last season. When he was involved in the play, great things happened.

The way Stringer would tuck the footy under his arm and burst out of the centre was a sight to behold. He swatted would-be tacklers away like they were your mate’s annoying kids. I have to admit, I may have underestimated just how strong Stringer is. I saw him in a cafe in South Melbourne a couple of years ago and he looked like a normal bloke, but that core of his must be immensely powerful to wade through the attempts of seasoned footballers to slow him down. The amazing thing was how often he’d do this. The Bombers would be in need of a clearance and bam – there was Stringer thrown into the middle, winning the footy at will.

He was a beast.

And Essendon need him to be exactly that again.

The cynics can speculate all they like, but Jake Stringer proved a lot of people wrong in 2021. His play was one of the main reasons the Bombers made their way to September again, and if he continues this form, he could be the catalyst for a deeper run into finals.

So, what can we realistically expect from Stringer in 2022 to justify that new deal?

With a full component in the midfield, I expect Stringer to spend less time in the guts, initially, anyway. If there are injuries, he will split more time in there, but the bulk of his work in 2022 should be up forward. If his overall disposal numbers fall, an increase in goals could be the net result. He was at 16.42 touches and 2.16 goals per game in 2021. Let’s say he drops to 13 touches; is 2.5 goals per game in play? That would, believe it or not, put Stringer in contention for the Coleman!

His transition to the Bombers was not perfect. His form may have been up and down for a while and injuries may have compromised his ability to deliver, however, he found his sweet spot last season and if he stays fit, there is no reason he cannot deliver something similar again.

 

IS KYLE LANGFORD THE MOST UNDERRATED WINGMAN IN THE GAME?

If not the number one most underrated, he would be in the top couple.

The Bombers really missed him at the business end of the season, with his strong hands and hard run at both ends of the ground. I found that Langford often flew under the radar of the opposition – they would be well-advised to pay attention to him in 2022.

At one stage last season, Langford sat around sixth in our weekly wingman of the year rankings (weekly column for members – if you know, you know), and with his ability to work forward and hit the scoreboard, he gave the Bombers an excellent one-two punch with Nik Cox on the opposite side doing much of the same. In terms of overhead marking prowess, I would back Langford and Cox in the air against any other wing duo in the caper – they would destroy them.

Just turned 25 Langford is now about to hit his peak years. Given that., what is his 2022 ceiling?

Cracking 20+ disposals for the first time in 2022, Langford may not fly under the radar of opposition coaches for much longer. There are only so many games you can watch where he outbodies and outmarks an opponent, and works hard to give an option inside 50 before you start wondering what you’re going to do to stop him.

Anything over 20 touches per game in 2022 will be the product of hard work from Langford. He has to be prepared to run back into defence as hard as he runs forward. As such, picking up more than 1.1 rebound 50 disposals would be something to look for. If the opposition is monitoring him closely going forward, this is a way of continuing to have an influence on the contest and using the transition to get free through the middle.

I’d also like to see him maintain his marks inside 50. As stated earlier, his overhead skills are excellent. If he can manufacture one-on-ones against fellow wings as he works the fat side of the ground, the marks will follow, as will the scoring opportunities.

Essendon have a unique opportunity with Langford. He has the potential to have a breakout season after having what was seemingly a breakout season on the wing. With so much attention on what is occurring inside the centre square for Essendon, what happens just outside it may be just as important.

 

CAN SAM DRAPER GRADUATE TO BECOME THE NEXT RUCK BULLY?

He’s shown signs, but whilst he has had a bit of mongrel in his game, there have also been instances where Sam Draper has let opposition players off the hook in contests.

Ruck Bullies don’t let players off the hook.

At 105 kilograms, Draper is a weapon. His ability to crash a pack and bring the ball to ground for the Bombers was vital in 2021 and with another preseason under his belt, and an improved aerobic capacity, Draper enters the 2022 season looking to make the leap into the upper echelon of AFL rucks.

I know some of you may think he is already there, and in moments, you may be correct, but it is the consistency and reliability that need improving for him to make that jump. Draper averaged just ten touches per game in 2021 and whilst his marking numbers were up slightly on his rookie campaign, they were not what you’d call impressive by any stretch – just 2.38 per game.

When I speak about the upper echelon, players like Max Gawn averaged over five per game. Todd Goldstein – not renowned for his overhead ability, averaged 3.64. Some may point to the lack of marking from Nic Naitanui to blow this point out of the water, and if they did, I’d smile. When Draper averages over seven clearances per game, I’ll forget about his marking ability as well.

As much as I am talking about numbers above, being a Ruck Bully is more about attitude, and when you see a player that you can pick on (fairly, of course), you damn well do it. Brodie Grundy flat out beat up on Tim English for three straight years, picking up Brownlow votes and plenty of the footy with each clash. Teams monstered the Gold Coast and Carlton last season when they were forced to compensate for the loss of personnel. Draper had 24 touches against a broken down Zac Smith – he should have put him to the sword.

There is a killer instinct that good rucks have. They know when their opponents are overmatched and they start to play with a bit of swagger and a “watch this” type of attitude. That is where Draper needs to be.

He has the physical tools. Now it is all upstairs. He can either become the type of ruckman teams put plans in place to combat, or the type teams hope to be able to limit, and it is will be his killer instinct that helps him become the latter.

How does this look on paper? 13-15 touches per game and close to 30 hit outs would be ideal, and if we combine that with a continuation of his clearance numbers (a Ruck Bully specialty) maybe I will start discounting those marks numbers after all.

 

HOW SUCCESSFUL HAS HALF-BACK HEPPELL BEEN?

I loved him in this role.

I was sceptical to begin with and worried about his disposal coming out of defence, but his composure and confidence in defence was a valuable weapon for the captain, and the move may end up extending his career for a couple of seasons.

Heppell’s foot injury was the type that threatens to end careers. Three games in 2020 would have had many Bomber fans worried for his future, but a switch to half-back and a new role (as well as a healed foot… pretty important in the scheme of things) gave Heppell a new lease on life, and with others picking up the midfield slack, Heppell was free to work across half-back and influence the contest.

To begin with, I wondered which of he and Jack Ziebell would make the best transition, and whilst Ziebell’s numbers were monstrous in the early part of 2021 and on paper he looked as though he was having a bigger impact, but Heppell was working as part of a systemic defence – Ziebell was taking on the role of being everything to everyone. He had to, but that does not mean he was more effective.

Heppell’s quiet way of going about his business in defensive 50 saw him register over 24 touches and 6.4 intercepts per game as he gave the Bombers a reliable avenue as a release player. Ziebell had 25.2 and 6.5 as a comparison.

Given Ziebell was excellent, it should be a huge feather in the cap of the Bombers captain that I came away from the 2021 season thinking he was better and gave more to his team.

Turning 30 in 2022, the move of Heppell to half-back was one of a true leader. His growth during his period of captaincy has been phenomenal. Taking over during a tumultuous period, Heppell has emerged not as a good leader, but a great one, and he deserves to see the Bombers enjoy some success in his time. The move to defence is the move that may just see that occur.

 

And that’s it for non-members. The next 15ish questions are for those members who support us. I want these to be the biggest season previews you’ll read and am determined to give value for money. Some sites will give you lip service about your team – I will be diving deep. The Mongrel does the work… always. Want to join us?

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