Following an off-season that could be described in many ways… with most of them using a heap of swear words, Essendon supporters approach the 2023 season with a sense of relief.
No longer will they be concerned with coaching or board appointments. No longer do they have to concern themselves with what so-and-so said that was not aligned with the rest of the club was stating. No longer do they have to worry about the peripheral bullshit.
And nor will I for the remainder of this article. I’m guessing you’ve had enough of it.
Now, the club can just get down to playing footy.
With Brad Scott at the helm, the Bombers are looking at turning over a new leaf. They are taking a punt on some players looking for a second chance, and will be looking for a big lift in the cohort of players in the 30-100 game bracket to facilitate a jump up the ladder.
Can they do it? Let’s find out.
It’s that time of year, already.
The break after Christmas and New Year is over. The holidays are finished for AFL players, and the hard stuff starts now. Yes, the teams had been training for well over a month prior to Christmas, but as we head into 2023, the ante is upped and the intensity increases.
This is where premierships are won and lost. This is where improvements are made and lists come together. New faces, new colours, old heads with renewed passion… so much feeds into the making of a contender. And as the days tick down toward to the intra-club clashes, practice games, and eventually the real stuff, questions are raised about each team and how they’re going to perform in 2023.
We don’t do things by halves here, at The Mongrel. When we do a season preview, we go all out to make sure it is the best, most comprehensive coverage you’ll receive. We pride ourselves on it. If you are going to read one season preview for your team, or any team, this series provides it.
The way it works is as follows.
Each club has a minimum of 15 questions asked about their 2023 season, their coaches, their players, and their expectations. The answers are not glossed over. We dive deep on each and every one – some singular answers would normally be long enough for an entire column. The first five questions/answers are free for you to consume. The next 10-14 for each club are for our members, including a special appearance from Mrs Mongrel to throw her two cents in the mix.
You will not read a deeper season preview than this – I guarantee it.
And with that, let’s jump into The Big Questions relating to the Bombers in 2023.
WHAT CAN WE EXPECT FROM THE BABY BOMBERS OF 2021?
There was a time, not too long ago, when Essendon was the envy of teams looking to rebuild their lists.
It was the post-season of 2020 and entering the draft with three consecutive draft picks, thanks to some wheeling and dealing with Carlton, and compensation for losing Joe Daniher, the Bombers picked up three players perceived as future stars.
At pick eight, they snagged a young man quickly dubbed a “unicorn” by the AFL media. Nik Cox was viewed as a player who would go on to transcend the game. It was high praise for one who was yet to pull on boots at the elite level.
At pick nine, the Dons got their paws on Archie Perkins. With his long flowing, and now dearly missed locks, his ability to play through the middle and get forward excited Bomber fans, and for good reason.
And at pick ten, Essendon picked a two-metre defender in the making in Zach Reid. Despite having some experience playing forward as a junior, he was viewed as the Bombers’ next pillar in defence.
Yes, it was great times to be a Bombers supporter – the future was there in front of you. Now, they just had to put it all together and make the team better.
And here we are.
I must stress – this is in no way a shot at the kids the Bombers drafted; things take time in the AFL, but to say that the threesome has under-delivered to this point in time would be a vast understatement.
Reid, like most key position players, has not made huge strides. He has eight games to his name across his first two seasons.
Nik Cox, despite jumping out of the box in his debut season, has had reality hit him in the face like a wet fish, restricted to just five games (all losses) in 2022. His injury issues last season were one of the reasons the Bombers slipped – they missed the organic improvement that was expected from him.
That leaves Archie Perkins, who has continued to battle on, mainly across half-forward, whilst his peers struggled. If two out of three ain’t bad, how does one out of three measure up, at this stage, at least?
Where do these players sit heading into 2023?
The Bombers would be hoping to see something from Zach Reid in short order. At 21 before the season commences, he needs to start being a consistent presence in the senior team. The Bombers are lacking key position support, and whilst teams like Geelong have managed to unleash talent like Sam de Koning in their defences, Reid has been hampered by stress fractures in his back this preseason (this does NOT sound promising) and has managed to add just seven games to the one he notched in 2021. After a rest and recuperation period, the hope is that his ailment settles to the point where he can put in the work and get a solid six or seven week block of full training in before the start of the season.
The return of Cox to the team should give the Bombers a lift, however, he rolled an ankle at training before Christmas, which may limit him slightly in the lead-up to the season considering his issues in 2022. The Bombers will be cautious with him, given his exalted status, but there is also an element of need that is prevalent in this team, and they need Cox to make the big step in 2023. We’ve heard how special this bloke is – everyone wants to see it, and see it often!
Perkins is the one who could break out, and I say that based on the fact that he now has two solid seasons behind him and has shown glimpses that he can genuinely fulfil the potential he demonstrated in his very early days. He is clean overhead, has good skills, and is a reliable finisher when the opportunity presents. Whilst the other two will continue on at their own pace, Perkins may be ready to be fast-tracked.
A good preseason should see him tick up over a goal per game (he was 0.9 in 2022, so it is no stretch at all), and if he can start working a little higher up the ground and hit the wings, a decent improvement on his 12.2 touches per game could also be on the cards.
Truth be told, I would love to see Cox get back out there and pick up where he left off in 2021. His last season was a wasted one, and as someone who was playing on the wing, the Bombers are likely weighing up where he is most needed at the moment.
As for Reid… I am guessing Essendon fans have the same feeling I do – they just want him to get right and get out there. If he takes a few lumps along the way, so be it, but as long as he is compiling games, all is well.
Is 2023 the season that the labors of 2021 bear fruit?
Perhaps, but if the last two years prove anything, it is that there is rarely, if ever, a fast way to replenish a list via the draft. No matter how good kids are, growing pains will occur. Fingers crossed the Bombers have put those pains behind them heading into 2023.
WHERE DOES THE HELP COME FROM FOR JAYDEN LAVERDE?
The section above will give some info on the status of Zach Reid, who has been earmarked as the key defender the Bombers will rely on for the next 10-12 years, health permitting.
Other than him, Essendon require some strong bodies to stand up and support their defender who was completely under the pump in 2022, Jayden Laverde.
I have to give Laverde a lot of credit – he was doing his utmost to hold a defence together in 2022. Sadly, that defence seemed to be made up silly string and clag, at points. Michael Hurley’s injury robbed them of a big body, James Stewart is… well, James Stewart, and Brandon Zerk-Thatcher, whilst looking promising, was not yet strong enough to handle the monsters in the league.
It left Jayden Laverde, as the 16th-tallest player on the Bombers list, as the number one defender, enlisting help from Mason Redman, Jake Kelly, and Jordan Ridley to get the job done.
It was almost unfair.
Sadly, it could remain so, given the Bombers did not recruit a key defender to help out. With Liam Jones, Zaine Cordy, and Griffin Logue all switching colours, Essendon fans could well feel justified in being disappointed.
However, could assistance come from an unlikely source?
Sam Weideman has failed as a forward at Melbourne. That is not a shot at him – that’s fact. He made a massive habit out of getting t spots the ball was not, in 2022. It was almost like a talent… only it was exactly the opposite of what talent is. He showed some promise as a forward early in his career, but appears to be a confidence-player.
His confidence was shot in 2022 and his recruitment by the Bombers provides a shot at redemption. Maybe that shot comes as part of a defensive role? The team needs a tall defender with good reach. Weideman has the size and reach to be an effective spoiler – he could follow in the footsteps of Laverde and turn a sputtering career as a forward into a very handy one as a defender.
Brad Scott will be looking for avenues to give him team an edge. He will have realised the defence presents a major problem pretty early in the piece. He must be willing to try options to turn things around, and putting Weideman behind the footy gives both the team a big body (195cm and 94 kgs) and gives Weideman a great chance to reinvent himself.
Teams that make jumps tend to get results where they are not expected – little wins that create bigger ones. Weideman to defence is not what is expected of Weed in 2023. Which is what could make it so good.
For both him and the club.
HOW MUCH DID THIS TEAM MISS KYLE LANGFORD IN 2022?
Langford is such an underrated player.
As a wingman, he is one of the few that looks like a natural drifting forward ad taking an overhead mark within range of goal. It is a skill that structures and confidence (or lack thereof) prevent many in his position from doing, but Langford seems completely at home with this aspect of the game, and seems to do it easily.
Despite injury in 2022, he had 11 goals from his final seven games, and without being dominant, was able to work back into the rotation and finish the season.
What his presence on the Essendon team does is force the opposition wingman to play a defensive role, always maintaining awareness of where Langford is and whether he is putting himself in a dangerous position to score. In effect, it reduces the impact of his direct opponent because he knows he has to remain relatively close to Langford, lest he and his team pay on the scoreboard.
In a good team, Langford has the potential to be a monster. A solid body for an outside player, his contested marking allows him to offer a strong one-on-one target if he can get isolation on his opponent. This is something that those who attempted to replace him did not provide.
Blokes like Brayden Ham… they will run all day, but they cannot match Langford’s aerial prowess. He creates an issue just by being out there.
The issue for Langford, and the Bombers as a result, is that he has never played 20 games in a season. Even in 2021, when he played 17 games, he was subbed off twice due to injury – soft tissue strains seem to plague him, and when he gets one or two, it impacts his ability to run as hard defensively. The result is that it opens the Bombers up going the other way. A fit Langford gets back to cover. An injured Langford… he tends to run at three quarter pace and never quite get there.
It is a little damning that he has only twice averaged over one rebound fifty per game (2019/21). I have no doubt this is a conditioning issue as a result of injuries, but it is something to be aware of, as it places additional pressure on the defence to cover his man when Langford does not do it.
IS AN ALL-AUSTRALIAN BLAZER IN SIGHT FOR MASON REDMAN? OR DOES JORDAN RIDLEY GET THERE FIRST?
There were many making the case for Mason Redman’s selection to the All-Australian team in 2022, and though the case could be made that he had his breakout season in 2021, it was last year that he really made people sit up and take notice.
Redman has a bit of mongrel in him, which I love. He is one of those players that looks like he genuinely cares about his own performance, and that of those around him. He runs hard, takes the game on, and does not think twice when the opportunity arises to bowl an opponent over. He’d be the type of bloke you’d love to have playing alongside you.
The Bombers are blessed, inasmuch as they have two players that could make an AA team in the near future. Jordan Ridley is a smooth mover in defence. He reads the play beautifully, can defend one-on-one, and often finds himself getting to the drop of the ball before his direct opponent due to his better judgement. With a Crichton Medal to his name already, his star rose quickly, and with the right support around him (see above in terms of key position players), he could make the jump to AA level at any point.
They are very different players, these two. As an analogy, one would be your classic meat pie and a can of coke – not the fanciest, but still hits the spot. The other is more like a three course meal, created by a renowned chef and with the pricetag to match. An odd couple in defence, the mongrel of Redman and the class of Ridley complement each other perfectly, and if there is an Essendon renaissance in the immediate future, you can damn sure bet these two will have a big say in it.
How high can they climb?
In terms of numbers, you’d love to see these two right at the top of the categories that best reflect their value. Redman was third at the club in metres gained in 2022, and was the same in Rebound 50s. Ridley was first in R50s, and second in intercepts. Though there will be stiff competition from Nick Hind, Jake Kelly, and Jayden Laverde in assorted categories, seeing these two as the 1-2 ranked players in the categories above would indicate that the Bombers are highly effective in cutting teams off and turning those intercepts into a fast counter-attack.
Of course, as I’ve been over, so much of their effectiveness depends on the ability of the Bombers to help in terms of key positions in defence. That help enables both these guys to play their natural games, as opposed to having to cover the lack of tall, strong timber.
CAN BEN HOBBS PUSH SOMEONE OUT OF THE ESSENDON MIDFIELD ROTATION?
I get the feeling that Brad Scott will be rapt to get his hands on a talent like Ben Hobbs.
No, that is not locker room/shower talk, though I am sure Hobbs is a very attractive young man – I am more talking about Scott having the chance to craft Hobbs’ game to be one that will make him a weapon for many years at the top level.
We saw Hobbs have a little purple patch through the middle of his first AFL season, with his Round 10-16 numbers averaging 18.4 touches, as he switched into the middle on occasion and was permitted to play his own game by Ben Rutten. It was enough to convince me that the kid has got it.
And it was a carrot that Rutten dangled in front of Hobbs – this is what is possible if you continue to work hard.
Will Brad Scott allow him to take a bite?
As it stands, the Essendon midfield contingent boasts Darcy Parish, Zach Merrett, Jye Caldwell, and Dylan Shiel as the four main pillars. Andy McGrath and Jake Stringer seem to breeze on through for very different reasons, but if there is an avenue for Hobbs to start pushing his name forward as a genuine midfield threat in 2023, who does he nudge out in the process?
Looking at the structure, Merrett and Parish are untouchable, at the moment. They combine well and bounce off each other perfectly. I like Caldwell’s defensive focus and think he gets to stay in the mix based on both his age (22) and the fact he is a two-way player.
That leaves Mr Shiel.
Truth be told, I don’t think Hobbs has enough in the tank to displace Shiel this season, or possibly even next. Maybe it was just a great picture that surfaced last week, but Shiel looks to be in ripping nick this preseason, and when he is on his game, he is a bundle of forward momentum. Not so great defensively, but if he is playing great offensive footy, that is the trade off you make.
That’d likely leave Hobbs nibbling at the same carrot as Andrew McGrath, spending small amounts of time in the guts as a relief midfielder and biding his time as he awaits a genuine opportunity.
Speaking of McGrath…
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