Who Is The AFL's Recruit Of The Season?

Player movement is such a vital part of the AFL that it’s time we looked to celebrate it in a more official capacity.

Whether it’s to top up a Premiership list, to inject some experience into a developing squad or simply players seeking greater opportunities in a different environment, we see bulk changes on a yearly basis in club-to-club transactions and now, free agency, that has a lasting impact on the careers of many.

The class of 2020 players who switched clubs has given us a quality top 10 with a number of names that some may not have expected to have such big, immediate impacts.

Injuries have resulted in a couple of big names being left off, but without further ado, we present the top 10 in this year’s 'Recruit of the Season'.

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10. Peter Wright (Essendon)

Recruited for a measly future fourth-round pick, Wright’s match-winning seven goals against the Bulldogs was simply a statistical exclamation point on what has been an impressive season. The former Sun has 25.13 in 18 games and has been an extremely important piece to the puzzle that has seen Essendon sit with the fourth-most points per game with only two rounds remaining.

Wright’s average of 12 disposals and 10 hit-outs prove his worth to the team in multiple facets, while career-highs in contested possessions, score involvements and clearances highlight the transformation the 24-year-old has undergone to ensure he’s a regular AFL starter. His importance to the Bombers edges out Adam Saad, Oleg Markov and Jack Higgins for a spot in the top 10.

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9. Shaun Higgins (Geelong)

Perhaps the Cats played slightly overs for a veteran with a year or two left in his career, giving North Melbourne pick 30 in exchange, but Higgins has proven to be a fantastic addition to the team’s forward half. Higgins has played 14 games for the season, finishing with less than 20 disposals in just two matches, and crucially, at least one goal assist in 10 games. 

At 33 years of age, the impact was always going to be limited. Higgins has had such a positive impact in his offensive ability though, as it has allowed him to occupy part of the wing that allows for Geelong’s three-man outside running rotation to become fully functional and interchangeable. Averaging 20 disposals at 75.4% efficiency, Higgins has been a key linking player that is a perfect peripheral figure in a team fighting for a Premiership.

8. Brad Crouch (St Kilda)

Zak Jones’ return has coincided with a form drop-off for Crouch, but there is little doubt that the former Crow was one of St Kilda’s best and most consistent performer through the first 17 rounds of the season. You know what you’re going to get from Crouch, ranked in the league’s top 20 for clangers and tackles, but the Saints have been able to use the 27-year-old’s contested style to complement the work of his elite skipper, Jack Steele.

Crouch isn’t averaging a career-high in any category in 2021, nor has he needed to. The Saints have been somewhat of an enigma this season, but in Crouch they have found a B-grade performer that has acclimatised himself well to the club’s environment. To rank higher, we’d want to see his tackling and inside work to create space for Jones to be even more influential offensively.

7. Jaidyn Stephenson (North Melbourne)

In terms of on-field potential, it seems strange that Collingwood would have been happy to let go of the 2018 Rising Star and former 6th overall pick in the draft before he entered his prime as a salary dump, but the Kangaroos would absolutely love having Stephenson in their team. 

Stephenson averages 19.6 disposals, 5.7 marks, 3.9 inside 50s and 2 scoring shots a game. He is rated elite for possessions, marks, clearances and metres gained, while rating above average for score involvements and pressure acts, a feature of his game lacking previously. As time goes on, Stephenson will continue to be a damaging half-forward who works up the field, and his long-kicking has been a huge boost to the offensive transitional play seen at the club.

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6. Jeremy Cameron (Geelong)

This is a list based on output rather than expected results, which is why Cameron ranks a little lower than would’ve been the case preseason. Having played just 10 games, Cameron has 28 goals which including six against the Tigers and five against Port Adelaide. Adding a Coleman Medalist and 9-time club leading goalkicker to the mix was hardly going to be a failure, but it was extremely encouraging for Cats fans and the coaching staff alike to see him click so well with Tom Hawkins.

We can expect to see the 28-year-old’s athleticism begin to have more of an impact in the future with a full pre-season under his belt; it’s easy to forget that he averaged 16 disposals and nearly seven marks a game between 2017 and 2019, kicking 167 games in 61 games during that time. The expectation is that Cameron will return for finals, in which case Geelong’s premiership prospects will only be enhanced. 

5. Nick Hind (Essendon)

Getting players for free is great, but when they prove to be an important part of the team, it sends the supporters into a frenzied craze. Hind returned to the red and black in a familiar position to that of his VFL days and has proven to be an absolute hit for the Bombers, averaging 22 disposals and 5 marks a game. 

Perhaps even speedier and more offensively damaging offensively than Adam Saad, Hind is ranked 14th for kicks, fourth for bounces and 431.2 metres gained and is rated elite for score involvements, quite spectacularly with a disposals efficiency of 78.8%. The greatest statistical anomaly for Hind is the fact he is averaging a career-high in inside 50s and a nearly identical number of score involvements to previous seasons, even though he played as a half-forward at St Kilda. 

4. Joe Daniher (Brisbane)

The Lions have become the modern-day Hawks in the fitness stakes, turning injury-prone players into some of their most consistent. Daniher is no different, playing every game in 2021 having played just 15 between 2018 and 2020. Getting on the park was the only thing standing between the former Bomber and stardom, it’s just that at Brisbane, Daniher’s impact is hidden away among Victorian media.

Daniher is playing a lot higher up the ground this season and using his long-ranging kicking to hit the scoreboard from anywhere on the ground. Statistically, this is his second-best season, averaging 14.7 disposals, 3.6 inside 50s and 6.7 score involvements per game. The career-low in marks (4.8) is counteracted by a career-high in metres gained (318.4) and the 27-year-old has fitted in perfectly to Brisbane’s tactic in kicking their way to victory. 38.27 in 20 games is an excellent return for Daniher.

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3. Tom Hickey (Sydney)

As they say, fourth club’s the charm and Tom Hickey has been the poster boy of it. Sydney’s remarkable rise into Premiership contention has largely been on the back of the consistency of having a highly competitive ruckman with great ability to impact contests around the ground. At 30 years of age, the breakout season is highly surprising, but the numbers are certainly impressive and extremely influential.

In 2021, Hickey is averaging 16.4 disposals, 10.4 contested possessions, 23.6 hit-outs and five clearances per game. Rated elite for clearances, metres gained, inside 50s and his ability to win defensive one-on-ones, the veteran has played with metronomic consistency in all parts of the ground that will hold the Swans in good stead going forward. Hickey is also the ideal role model to teach Joel Amartey about the importance of working hard, not bad for almost nothing.

2. Isaac Smith (Geelong)

We covered Smith’s importance to Geelong earlier in the season, and his form has certainly continued at a high standard. The veteran has had 7 or more marks in 11 of his past 14 games , averaging a career-high in rebounds and kicks per game. He has clearly been Geelong’s best performing recruit in 2021, transforming the outside game into one that can help the Cats maintain pressure and dominance over the four quarters of a game.

Smith has surprised many with his consistency in 2021 and is a vital factor to Geelong’s assault on the 2021 flag.

1. Aliir Aliir (Port Power)

Fresh off a Showdown medal, Aliir is back to his best and looks to have one eye set on the All-Australian squad. He has helped the Power entrench themselves in the top four, with a double chance all but certain for the club. In his down period, coach Hinkley sent him into the ruck and in attack, but Aliir has since settled back into defence as the main lockdown player, averaging 15.4 disposals, 6.3 marks, 4 rebounds and only losing 17.8% of one-on-one contests.

The league’s best key defenders are able to lockdown, intercept and provide strong rebound. Aliir has recaptured his very best form from 2018, giving Port Adelaide a clear strength when the rest of the team has failed to fully convince. For the price of a future second round pick, one which will come in the mid-30s, the Power have landed the 2021 recruit of the season.

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Dem Panopoulos

Dem is a lover of sport with a keen eye for analytics. A passion for statistics that defies logic given his MyCricket numbers, you can see and hear him share his thoughts and views on Twitter @dempanopoulos

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