AFL Trade Period Primer: A List Analysis Of Every Club
The 2020 AFL season has come to an end, and now is the time of year where each of the AFL’s 18 clubs begins the process of re-shaping their playing lists for next year.
For some clubs this will be a relatively quiet activity, others will make far bolder and noisier moves that – they hope – will drastically reshape their fortunes in the short and long term.
I believe one of the mistakes AFL clubs make all too often is to judge where their playing list is at based on their season results.
While these should obviously be taken into account, there’s a lot of luck (good and bad) that goes into them – and sometimes teams can do a lot better (or worse) than the quality of their list suggests they should.
North Melbourne is a great example. After a poor 2017 season they did the usual thing a rebuilding team would do – take early draft picks, build for the future.
But when 2018 proved to be an unexpectedly competitive year resulting a mid-table finish, the ‘Roos jumped right back into top-up mode, recruiting the likes of Jared Polec, Aaron Hall, Jasper Pittard and Dom Tyson.
That has proven to be a poor strategy – something a studious examination of the list probably could’ve told the club ahead of time.
A good example from the other end of the scale would be Richmond in 2016. The Tigers had an unexpectedly poor season that year and were widely advised not to pursue mature recruits like Dion Prestia.
But, Richmond knew their list was in a better position than their on-field form suggested, and backed themselves in – and now they’ve been proven right thrice over.
We don’t have time enough to perform a detailed list analysis of every club, so instead today we’ll look at each of the AFL’s 18 clubs primarily by two simple measures – their games played and coaches votes in 2020, grouped by age.
In the chart above you can see the averages across the entire AFL for these statistics. We can use these numbers to draw some interesting conclusions, like: players aged 23-29 accounted for 55.6% of all games played this year, and 67.6% of all coaches votes.
For the purposes of this article, a player’s age is their age on Jan 1, 2020. And please note that the scale varies in the graphs that follow – if one column is unusually large, it can make the rest look unusually small compared to other clubs.
With that out the way – let’s dive in.
2020’s wooden spooners put 40.9% of their games into players 22 and under this year, which is the fourth-highest proportion of any team in the league.
However, the 23 coaches votes they got from the same age group was something of an underwhelming result, ranked 15th overall.
That doesn’t mean it’s all doom and gloom for Adelaide’s youth. There’s some handy looking players in there, but their biggest need is some genuinely elite young prospects.
An already-strong hand in the 2020 draft should help to deliver them just that.
Brisbane put 40% of their games this year into players 22 and under, which is above the AFL average of 34.3%.
Perhaps most encouragingly, it is the highest proportion of any of 2020’s finals teams, and their 106 coaches votes from players in this age group was the best in the league.
Overall the Lions have a nice mix of young, prime-age and veteran talent. It’s really no surprise to see them doing so well on the field.
It’s a good time to add more mature talent, which they’ve already done by signing free agent Joe Daniher.
Carlton put 49 games into players 32 or older this year, the most of any team in the league, and perhaps an unusual strategy for a side still going through the latter stages of a rebuild.
Beyond that though, their list looks healthy. Their 19-24 group had a good year and should make them a competitive side as they mature over the next five years.
They’re probably going down that route a little earlier than I would, but I don’t think it’s going to do them any damage – and should provide an immediate boost.
Despite a disappointing year, Collingwood’s list still appears to be in a good position. They’ve got a strong group in the prime of their careers, quality veterans, and some promising youth.
If there’s a worry, it’s that Scott Pendlebury and Steele Sidebottom, 31 and 28 respectively, are so crucial to this side’s fortunes. Collingwood have plenty of prolific ball-winners at younger ages, but none with the same kind of class.
The Pies’ biggest problem at the moment is controversy rather than statistics – the uncertain path they must navigate around Jordan De Goey’s alleged indecent assault, as well as the bizarre situation that’s developing around Adam Treloar.
But get all the ducks in a row and Collingwood’s premiership window is definitely still open.
Despite a poor season on-field, Essendon’s list profile has some promise. Most of their talent is concentrated in a group aged 21-26 which should blossom over the next few years.
That offers cause for cautious excitement, but there’s some risk it could be derailed by the loss of several key players this offseason.
Essendon will at least find themselves holding plenty of draft capital, and will need to decide how much goes to the draft, and how much is spent finding mature replacements for outgoing players.
If they can land the right mature players, I think they can be a competitive team in the short-term – and Jye Caldwell and Josh Dunkley do seem like good fits.
That said, going to the draft would be the safer long term bet, especially given that there’s some quality young talls in the pool this year, which they need.
The Dockers are several years into a rebuild and their list profile reflects that, though progress has been slowed by losing mature talents like Lachie Neale, Brad Hill and Lachie Weller along the way.
Those players going out however has allowed Fremantle to bring more youth back in. They had 69 votes by players 20 or younger this year, ranked #2 in the league.
Overall they have a promising list that will mature given time. The only real question hovering over them is whether it will be quickly enough to make good use of Nat Fyfe’s best years.
Still, they should resist the temptation to rush things. Staying the course and continuing to add more good youth at the draft is the best path for them.
The Cats’ 40 AFLCA votes from players 25 and under was the equal-lowest of any team in the league this year – tied with bitter rivals Hawthorn.
That they still made it all the way to the grand final speaks to just how talented their mature core of players is, but they won’t be around forever.
The Cats do have a few solidly good kids, but it seems inevitable that in five years’ time or so they will drop off in a big way.
That being the case, they might as well swing for the fences now and do everything they can to win a premiership before the inevitable arrives – bringing Jeremy Cameron to the club will go a long way towards that goal.
Gold Coast put nearly 60% of all games into players aged 23 or younger this year, comfortably the most of any team in the competition.
And they got plenty of reward from doing just that – 126 coaches votes from players in that age bracket is the fourth most in the league. They had 69 from players 18-19 – beating the next best club my more than 30.
The key now is patience. Hawthorn’s first three-peat premiership was won 12 years after Luke Hodge arrived at the club, Richmond’s era of success began 10 years after Trent Cotchin was drafted.
Gold Coast’s equivalents to those players have only arrived in the last year or two and it may well take that long for them to reach the peak of their powers. But if they can keep it together till then, they’ll be mighty indeed.
The Giants had plenty of problems in 2020 but the position of the playing list wasn’t one of them. They’ve got a good group of talent that is right now hitting its prime, and has no reason not to be a premiership contender.
Of course, that is going to be damaged by the departures of several key players this offseason – the upside being that GWS will be left with plenty of draft capital.
They have a team that’s hard for fresh 18-year-olds to break into and they’re in a market where, if opportunities aren’t forthcoming, young players leave pretty quickly.
I think their best move is to trade for mature bodies who can come into the team right now. They don’t have to be A-graders, just reliable role-players who can support the star-studded midfield.
Hawthorn put more than 40% of all games into players 28 and older this year, the second-most of any team in the league, which is frankly a bit bizarre for a club that was performing so poorly on field.
It likely says something about how bare the cupboard is when it comes to young talent, and just 15 coaches votes by players 23 and under – the least of any team in the league – echoes that reality.
Stopgap players like Kyle Hartigan might prove ok as mature bodies to fill positions when the club rebuilds, but the Hawks can’t afford to spend anything of value on them.
Instead their mission is simple – pump every resource they can into draft picks. As many as possible, as early as possible.
Expectations often outpace development, and Melbourne, after an exciting 2018 season, showed us just how good they might be, have been a victim of this.
While many were disappointed with their performance in 2020, in reality it was probably about right for a team whose best talent is still young.
They had 166 coaches votes from players 23 and under this year, which is the most of any team in the league, and suggests good times are on the horizon.
They have limited draft assets this year but a mature key forward would be good to get. Ben Brown might be a little more mature than is ideal, but seems to be their best option.
If a rebuild is a pool, then North Melbourne is the kid who has spent the last four years staring at it with trepidation from the diving board, struggling to find the courage to jump in.
But their poor 2020 season has shown that it is time to take the plunge, and their list profile backs that up.
They got 31.9% of their coaches votes from players 30 and older this year, the highest proportion of any team in the league, which is very worrying for a side in the bottom two.
North have a number of young prospects that fans are excited about, but for most so far it’s been glimpses rather than full games.
It’s time to stop flirting with free agents and being tempted into topping up, and instead look to get some elite prospects in at the draft.
Port Adelaide got 187 coaches votes from players 29 or older this year, the most of any team in the league, and 93 from players 23 and under.
In between that is a group of players 21-28 who only produced 45% of Port’s coaches votes this year, by far the lowest proportion of any team in the league for that age bracket.
What does it mean? Their current competitiveness is the result of a nice dovetail between some very talented veterans and very promising kids, but their prime-age group is underwhelming.
That makes sustained success unlikely. Instead they will likely decline when their veterans do (but might pinch a flag before then), and rise again when the young players reach maturity.
They must resist the temptation to again go hunting for a ‘missing link’. Continue to add more draft talent to what’s already there and the rewards will eventually come.
Any hopes that Richmond might quickly fade back down the ladder now that they’ve won three of the last four flags should be dashed by what looks like a promising youth contingent.
The Tigers got 131 coaches votes from players 23 and under this year – better than Gold Coast, better than Fremantle, third overall behind Melbourne and Brisbane.
Their list is healthy enough that they can really go in any direction they want – more picks at the draft won’t hurt, bringing in another mature star would be great too, if the finances line up.
Whichever way they go I think they’re going to be thereabouts for many years to come. 'Tiger Time' is a long way from over.
St Kilda’s rebuild has taken longer than the club would have liked but finally culminated in some success this year, and the list profile looks promising.
There’s clearly a solid group of talent in that 20-26 age bracket which should mature over the next five years or so and see the Saints be a competitive team.
Is it enough to take them all the way? For mine the biggest question is whether there’s enough genuine A-grade talent on the list.
That’s hard to find, but if we can see another one or two out-and-out stars emerge from this group, they could go a long way.
Where other teams often hover nervous around the idea of a rebuild and ultimately commit to it later than they probably should, Sydney have been quietly pumping games into their youth for years.
That means that, only two years into what is now undoubtedly a rebuild, their list profile looks really good, with a very solid contingent of talent 23-and-under.
They put 55% of their games into those players this year, second only to Gold Coast, and that experience will serve them well in seasons to come.
More young talent is the order of the day and with Academy prospects Braeden Campbell and Errol Gulden on the way - and the Swans having a pick early enough to get in before bids for either - they’ll get plenty of it.
West Coast’s best talent is almost entirely in that 23-29 age bracket this year which is the perfect list profile for a premiership contender. They got more coaches votes in that age group than any other club.
Injuries and other woes prevented them really pushing for the flag this year, but I have no doubt they’ll be back in a big way come 2021.
More mature talent to add to that push would be great, but they don’t really have the draft assets (or probably the salary cap space) to go shopping.
They’ve already got everything they need to win another premiership, and they’re a great chance over the next 2-3 years.
Like Melbourne but only more so, the Bulldogs are a team who’ve been burdened by the expectations put on them by one incredible year early in their development.
They’ve arguably disappointed in the last four years – playing finals twice, winning none – but their list profile is one of a team that’s ready to pop.
They had 284 coaches votes from players 22-27 this year, the most of any team in the competition.
That’s a nice group of talent that is just now coming into its prime, and there’s some good youth coming through to keep propelling them forward.
I’m as confident about them as I am any other side that they can be a premiership contender over the next 5-10 years.
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