2021 AFL Lists: Experience, Coaches Votes And Three Finals Threats

The completion of the AFL’s national, pre-season and rookie drafts has brought to an end the last major events of the 2020 AFL calendar, leaving lists close to finalised ahead of season 2021.

Of course, the introduction of the Supplementary Selection Period means clubs still have an option to list new players before 2021, and even then, more will be added in next year’s mid-season draft.

Several clubs have left list spots open to make room for SSP or mid-season signings, most notably St Kilda, who could still sign as many as three more players before the season begins.

Carlton, Melbourne, Richmond, Collingwood, North Melbourne, Essendon, Sydney and Port Adelaide all also have one or two spots open, and so will Adelaide with Bryce Gibbs to retire despite being re-selected in the rookie draft for administrative purposes.

But while lists remain fluid, we know enough about them to dig into a little analysis on how each club is shaping up for 2021.

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I’ve chosen here to focus on experience rather than age, as experience can be neatly viewed as a total, while age really needs to be an average to make any sense – and averages are heavily skewed at the moment by the different sizes of lists.

For example, St Kilda currently possess the AFL’s oldest list on average – but they also have 2-4 less players on their list than virtually all their rivals. Sign three young-ish players and that average will drop back into pack.

This chart, then, shows the total games of experience possessed by each club’s 2021 listed players – with the exception of Bryce Gibbs, who has been excluded from all figures here for the reasons mentioned above.

It’s no surprise to see Geelong at the top of the chart, having replaced the lost experience of Gary Ablett and Harry Taylor with the likes of Isaac Smith, Shaun Higgins and Jeremy Cameron.

St Kilda are again a team that have clearly made a leap forwards, after being in the middle of the pack for experience last year.

But, this might be a little misleading – it’s no doubt largely due to the additions of Shaun McKernan or James Frawley, the former likely to be depth only and the latter possibly in that category too.

Hawthorn still feature in the top six despite a bottom-four finish that many believe should be pointing the club in the direction of a rebuild, though their tally is of course inflated by the evergreen Shaun Burgoyne.

GWS’ high-profiled departures have seen them drop back to possessing a list experienced than Gold Coast, while the exits out of Essendon have for now made them 2021’s second-least experienced list.

How important are these numbers? Experience does correlate with success at AFL level, but it is by no means insurmountable – and an experienced list doesn’t mean an experienced 22. 

Clubs like Essendon or Collingwood who’ve dropped back on the experience ladder may find the change rejuvenates them.

Speaking of best 22s, this chart shows the games experience on each list belonging to players who aren’t in that club’s top 22 most experienced players.

Of course, a club’s most experienced 22 and best 22 aren’t going to perfectly align – the Saints for example have AFL regulars like Rowan Marshall, Hunter Clark, Ben Long, Nick Coffield, Ben Paton and Max Kingoutside this group.

But a high number here still generally indicates that a club has some experienced depth to draw on outside their best 22, in a promising sign for the clubs who feature highly here.

Should teams at the lower end be worried? Not necessarily. Richmond for example may feature in the bottom six, but are a great example of team that’s shown they can weather injuries if they need to.

Still, Brisbane and Collingwood stand out as two sides who’ll expect to make finals and don’t have as much experience to draw on as others.

Should either suffer a bad run with injury – something unfamiliar to the Lions but very familiar at Collingwood – it’ll be interesting to see how they cope.

Our last chart shows the total career coaches votes ever won by the players on 2021 AFL lists. Again, the Cats are miles ahead, showing that their players are not just experienced – they’re quality.

Richmond, West Coast and Port Adelaide round out the top-four – and if you wanted to call those four sides the clearest flag contenders at this early stage, it would be difficult to disagree.

Sydney and Hawthorn also feature highly which probably reflects more their past success than the expectations we should have on them this year, which points out one of the dangers in judging an AFL list on numbers like these.

Joel Selwood’s 778 career votes – the second most of any active player in the league – won’t mean much to Geelong if the decline we’ve seen from him over the last two seasons continues into a third.

As with experience, there’s almost an argument that the middle of this chart is a better place to be in than the top end, assuming you’ve got the right mix of talent across age groups.

Brisbane, coming off back-to-back top four finishes, are a good example of that, while St Kilda, Melbourne and Fremantle stand out as sides who may be ready to pop.

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On that note, I’d like to pick out the three teams I think are most likely to break into finals next year. They are the Demons, the Dockers, and the Gold Coast Suns.

Melbourne and Freo speak for themselves as sides who threatened to do it this year only to fall short for one reason or another. Both are in a position where they’re going to get back in there sooner or later, and 2021 might be the year.

The Suns are more of a smokey, but I think a real chance. While they stopped winning in the second half of the season as they often do, compared to past years they were vastly more competitive, and really unlucky not to pick up a few more wins in the back half of the season.

For mine, they mirror, and rather well, the Brisbane Lions of 2018. Both sides finished the year with unimpressive win-loss records but percentages that stood out head and shoulders above the other teams in the bottom six – Brisbane recording 89.1%, Gold Coast 90.6%.

Of course, the Suns don’t have a Lachie Neale coming in, nor are they guaranteed the kind of golden injury run the Lions enjoyed in their breakout 2019 season – but if the footy gods grant them a little favour, I reckon they’ll surprise a few.

With that, we close up 2020 – at least as far as me and my keyboard are concerned. Merry Christmas to all, and a happy new year.

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Josh Elliott

Josh Elliott is an RMIT Data Science student and rusted-on North Melbourne fan who believes that a well-jittered scatter plot is the height of humanity's artistic achievement. He does not enjoy pie charts or donut charts but he does enjoy eating pies and eating donuts. Follow him on Twitter @JoshElliott_29

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