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The Mongrel Pre-Season Player Power Rankings 50-41

Much like Steven Hocking when it comes to rule changes, we don’t often hear a dumb idea we don’t like at The Mongrel Punt.

So, when it was floated in our team meeting (me and the missus) at the offices of The Mongrel Punt (on our couch) that there should be a malleable rating system for AFL players as we head into the season, I agreed with myself, and my missus just kind of stared at me, not knowing what I was talking about. Thus, we decided to run with our new ranking system.

Yes, that’s the way things get started here at Casa del Mongrel, and unless we start making money and can hire someone to rein me in, that’s how they’ll stay.

But vomiting out a list of names based solely on opinion is the sort of thing hacks do. Mark Robinson does it every year and somehow gets away with it. He revisits it at the conclusion of the season and hands down a list markedly different than what he started with. But what happens in between? How does one player drop out and another emerge? Where’s the progression? Where’s the players who rocket to the top of the rankings and fall away? There’s basically no transparency with the process other than that there seems to be some players Robbo likes, and some players he doesn’t.

Well, in our indomitable style, we here at The Mongrel (me) are throwing caution to the wind and taking on a power ratings system. Yep, I’m screwing over my future self by committing to updating this system every second week as the season progresses (the first rankings will not take placed until after Round Four, in order to gain a decent sample size of games). I’ll be making adjustments to the list every fortnight, and that should allow room for a pretty accurate depiction of which players are having the biggest impact on the season.

But how to go about it???

Good question, and to be honest, I am not 100% set on how to go about ranking players during the season. There are things that Champion Data rate highly that I am just not big on (kicking efficiency, for one – did you know that any kick over 40 metres is considered effective by CD? Even if it lands in the lap of the opposition! Craziness). Wins and losses will play a big part – you can be a great player on a poor team, but you’re not exactly powering them to wins, are you? Powerful players earn wins. Coaches votes will also be taken into account. Standing up in clutch moments will be rated very highly, and performing in marquee games may lend a bit of weight to the standing of some – dominant performances in derbies, showdowns, Anzac games, Dreamtime, top of the ladder clashes, Friday Night Footy… if you’re performing on the big stage, you deserve the recognition. I’ll get back to you on the rest of the criteria later (when I think of it).

But before we get into the season itself, and really I’d be jumping the gun considerably attempting to do just that right now, we need to establish a base and rankings from which to work, and to do this - you’d better sit down – I actually did some research.

Yep, pretty damn proud of myself right now. I went back through the last two years to collect data on the players who qualify for these power rankings. There’ll be conjecture and claims of bias, no doubt. There’ll be the occasional shouts of “you’re full of it” and that’s OK. If I was just making stuff up and throwing the list together for the sake of it, I’d understand, but I have been as fair as possible to ensure the best players over the past two seasons are recognised. Anything further back than that simply does not appear on my radar – if you’re relying on the great 2016 of Patrick Dangerfield to see him sitting atop this list, you’ll be disappointed. That’s called living off your reputation (kind of like both he and Buddy did with their appointments to the leadership of the 2018 AA team… but I digress). If your last two years haven’t been as good, you won’t be judged favourably for pre-season rankings going into 2019.

I’m not going to divulge our top secret formula here and now – you know those blokes at Champion Data are just clambering all over each other to throw away their current, well thought-out, statistic-based system and look closely at the Mongrel’s way of assessing players (and roll on the floor in fits of laughter if they ever uncover it). We don’t have a team of statisticians – I can barely do simple maths at times – but what I have done is put together a system that takes things like Brownlow votes, MVP votes, coaches votes, All-Australian selections, All-Australian squad selections, Coleman medal tallies, Gary Ayres medal tallies, Norm Smith tallies, win-loss records, games missed, records broken, and a couple of other factors into account to provide a comprehensive list as to who are the best players of the last two years heading into the 2019 season..

So, now the fun begins.

We’ve opted for a Top 50 just because that seems to be a manageable number, and also, it’s pretty easy for me to break down into parts in order to avoid having a breakdown of my own.

One thing you’ll notice with this is that I am not rewarding players who are languishing on bottom five teams. To make this list on a team with a poor record is a huge feat. Players receive rating points for playing on successful teams. The more successful your team, the higher your chances of gaining ground. That said, to do what Patrick Cripps has done is outstanding, and I loved seeing him finish where he did despite gaining bugger-all from his team perfromance. If we’re factoring in win-loss records, playing for a losing team is a huge setback. Whilst some reap the benefits of playing for Richmond, and amassing large win totals, if you’re stuck on Carlton, you don’t really get a free hit because your team has picked up 30 wins and a couple of five finals victories over the last couple of years. You need to be having the sort of years that elevate you despite the doldrums your team finds itself in. That’s where you’ll see just how good Cripps has been.

So, I hope I’ve been vague enough without being too vague, and clear enough without being too clear. Once the season begins, we’ll be ranking players every two weeks, but for now, here’s The Mongrel Punt’s pre-season Power Rankings for 2019.

50 – Devon Smith (Essendon)

If ever Adrian Dodoro (sounds like a particularly dumb extinct bird) finds himself under pressure to keep his job with the Essendon Football Club, he needs only to point out that he made the deal to bring Devon Smith to the club.

Smith had the second highest tackle average ever recorded in a home and away season in 2018 en route to claiming a well-deserved Crichton medal in his first season in red and black. His numbers were beaten only by Matt Priddis in 2010. The pick of the Bomber recruits, Smith added an element of hardness to the Bomber midfield many believed them to be lacking. His 8.45 tackles established him as one of the best two-way players in the league, and his output will be integral to Essendon’s rise up the ladder.

With 12 months under his belt at Essendon (same with Jake Stringer and Adam Saad), there is genuine excitement about what Essendon can achieve. Chemistry takes time to develop, and with recruits now settled at Tullamarine (wish I could still say Windy Hill), the pressure of Devon Smith will be vital to the Bombers playing (and winning) finals in 2019.

 

49 – Mark Blicavs (Geelong)

There was a time when Blicavs was looked at as a project player. The former middle distance runner seemed a little out of place earlier in his career, playing in the ruck at times, and getting run-with roles at others. But with Harry Taylor absent for much of 2018, Blicavs found a home in the strong Geelong back six.

He took home his second Carji Greeves medal in 2018, indicating that internally, the Cats rate him very highly. He was rarely beaten in defence all season, and would use that superior endurance to run away from chasing forwards, particularly late in games.

Whilst Blicavs’ numbers may have dropped steadily over the past four seasons, his role as a key defender last season, and this coming season are more important than numbers alone. Able to nullify bigs in the air, and match it for speed with smalls on the deck, Blicavs’ versatility makes him the perfect fit down back for the Cats.

 

48 – Tom Stewart (Geelong)

All-Australian for the first time in the 2018 season, Stewart was spotted by former Geelong great (and the player voted as greatest defender of all-time in a recent Mongrel Poll), Matthew Scarlett whilst playing at South Barwon. Scarlett made the call to the Cats, and the rest, as they say is history.

He was taken with pick 40 in the 2016 draft, and after two years in the system, he cracks the Mongrel Top 50. Stewart attacks the contest with ferocity, and reads the ball beautifully in the air, making him the ideal man to float off his opponent and intercept. He hits the ground at speed, rarely losing his feet and taking off as he lands, providing vital run out of the Geelong backline.

Stewart was a reliable force in the Geelong defence all season in 2019, just his second at the highest level. He was 12th in the league overall for intercept possessions, and with another pre-season under his belt, he’ll be a hard man to beat in 2019.

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47 – Dyson Heppell (Essendon)

I have to be up front – I don’t rate his disposal, but numbers don’t lie, and it’s the numbers that get him onto this list.

The Essendon captain is a former All-Australian (2014) who has developed into a true leader with the Bombers since taking over the helm in 2017. A prolific ball-winner, Heppell notched almost 27 touches per game in 2018, slightly up on his 2017 numbers. Rarely misses a game, and has been forced to play more as an inside mid in recent times as the Bombers struggled to get big-bodied mids playing to the level required.

If there is one area that Heppell needs to improve on, it is his delivery by foot. Whilst Champion Data states he went at 65.4% efficiency in 2018, the eye-test told me that he missed targets at crucial times in several games. If he can clean that up (and he’ll have to with new addition Dylan Shiel suffering from the same affliction), we could see Heppell make a move up the rankings as the season kicks into gear. I know this comes across as a little negative, and I apologise, but I don’t want to be writing glowingly about someone who has a distinct area to improve in.

To balance it out, I’ve never seen Heppell take his eyes off the ball – fi we were factoring in courage to this system, he’d have no probs improving his ranking.

 

46 – Jake Lloyd (Sydney)

The reigning Sydney best and fairest recommitted to the club amidst speculation he would take a lucrative offer from Gold Coast. He was the Swans’ “go-to” kicker off half back in 2018, and would often find himself the beneficiary of contested work from Dane Rampe and Heath Grundy.

Assuming we see Cal Mills back to full health, and Ollie Florent continue to drift back into defence to provide run as he did in the second half of 2018, Lloyd may find himself with a little more licence to run and carry further up the ground in 2019.

His damaging foot skills and ability to find space, even on the compact SCG, were vital to the Swans’ revival in 2018. From rounds 15-22, Lloyd averaged a whopping 31 touches per game. Not bad for a backman.

 

45 – Jack Macrae (Western Bulldogs)

But for a hamstring going ‘ping’, Macrae was almost a lock to make the All-Australian team in 2018. His ability to find the ball and become an 80-metre player with his long kicking and run and carry, were a bright spot on their second dismal season in a row. Keep in mind, win-loss records come into play for this ranking system. The Dogs were 19-25 over the past two seasons. He’s in because he was able to stand out even in a losing side.

Macrae will benefit greatly from a healthy Marcus Bontempelli running through the middle, attracting the bulk of opposition attention. When allowed off the chain, Macrae can be devastating. His 32.8 disposals per game were +5.3 on his 2017 stats. An amazing leap, particularly when you consider that 27.5 touches per game is nothing to sneeze at. Only Tom Mitchell amassed more disposals per game on average in 2018.

But Macrae is no outside-accumulator of the ball. He had 13.5 contested touches per game in 2018, as well as six clearances per contest. For those sleeping on Macrae… WAKE UP!

 

44 – Ben Cunnington (North Melbourne)

Broke the record for contested disposals in a single game, with an incredible 32  against Richmond in Round 8 2018, and went a long way to showing the general footy public what North fans have known for years – he is a star!

His stiff-arm fend off is as close to the equal of Dustin Martin’s as we’ve seen on a consistent basis, and he is a hard man to tackle with a great low centre of gravity, and power through the hips to stand up and deliver when someone does manage to grab hold of him. Cunnington provides the ideal complement for Shaun Higgins in the North midfield, adding grunt to Higgins’ class.

An aspect of Cunnington’s game that is often overlooked is his ability to grab overhead marks, at times under extreme pressure, and to do it with one-grab. He is the type of player every team needs in the middle. Collingwood have Steele Sidebottom, who I likened Cunnington to during the last season and got hate messages from fans of both teams, but whilst Sidebottom gets outside more, Cunnington does a heap of set-up work in close. Beautiful hands in a tight spot, Cunnington is a complete unsung hero of the game. Stiff not to be AA last season.

That he couldn’t even get into the squad…well, that’s just crazy.

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43 – Jesse Hogan (Fremantle)

I’ll admit… this shocked me. I’m not the biggest Jesse Hogan fan, and to see him bob up like this was really surprising. Bolstered by playing on a very good 2018 Melbourne side, Hogan was able to accumulate high disposal counts and slotted 47 goals for the year. This was coming off 20 goals in an injury-interrupted 2017 season.

The form of Tom McDonald and the emergence of Sam Weideman was enough to make Melbourne feel that Hogan was no longer vital to the Dees ongoing success, and after much posturing, Fremantle pulled the trigger on the trade to secure Hogan, finally giving them the replacement “big” they’ve longed for since Matthew Pavlich retired.

Hogan will have a point to prove in 2019. He was on track to be an All-Australian forward in 2018 until injury, and a series of games against top eight teams where he failed to perform, combined to see him slide from contention. Playing for the Purple Haze, Hogan has a chance to silence the critics by putting that forward line on his back. If the Dockers are to start to be taken seriously again, their road there leads through two place – the foot of Nat Fyfe and the chest of Jesse Hogan.

Let’s see how often those two factors combine.

 

42 – Dom Sheed (West Coast)

A surprise, huh? Not really. We rate players who perform well in big games VERY highly. Those who seize the moment, eat the pressure, and deliver on the big stage deserve the accolades that come their way. And that’s what Dom Sheed did in the 2018 Grand Final.

With the weight of the footballing world on his shoulders, he went back and slotted the sort of goal you need five or six tries at when you’re at the oval practising by yourself. And he did it in front of 100K at the MCG, and god-knows how many watching on TV. Oh, the game on the line as well. How do you think you’d go in that scenario? I might curl up in the foetal position for a while just thinking about it. Sheed was a picture of calm - that is ice-water running through your veins kind of level of coolness under pressure. His kick never looked like missing, and as such, there was no way he could miss this list.

This bloke went back to the WAFL during the year, and came back a man on a mission. As of September 29th, 2018… I’d say mission accomplished. He finished with almost 23 touches per game in 2018, relishing the chance to play a little more freely with the absence of Andrew Gaff in the later stages of the year.

 

41 – Andrew Gaff (West Coast)

Ouch. What could’ve been if not for one punch that slipped too high, huh?

Gaff was having a monster 2018, averaging a career-high 30.7 touches per game. He was rated as arguably the best wingman in the game, and was still voted into the All-Australian team despite missing the last three games of the year due to suspension.

Gaff added to his game in 2018, adding 1.8 contested disposals per game to his 2017 numbers, and has been one of the Eagles’ most consistent performers for the past two seasons. His re-commitment to the club gives a clear indication that his role in the success of West Coast is far from complete. 2019 is set to be a year of redemption for Gaff, as he not only shakes off the residual psychological effects of the punch that stopped the football world, but also deals with the ramifications – a missed opportunity to play in a premiership. I wonder which eats at him more?

If you’re looking for one man to establish himself as a player to watch in 2019, look no further than Gaff. He is chomping at the bit to make amends for the way his 2018 season ended, and was on a career-upswing prior to the incident. I’d throw a bit of coin on him for the Brownlow right now… had I not spent so much on Christmas presents.

Hit here to go to Part Two - Players 40-31

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