The AFL's Next Generation Of Key Forwards Are Real And Spectacular
We might actually be on the cusp of another golden era of key forwards in the AFL.
In fact, the last time we were this blessed with such exceptional, young key forward talent was 2008, a year where 21-year old Lance Franklin kicked 113 goals, and when his Hawks teammate, Jarryd Roughead, born a week earlier, booted 75.
Those two would obvious go on to combine for more than 1500 goals and half a dozen premierships, yet 2008 was also a season a 21-year old Travis Cloke was also stamping his authority on the league, eventually growing into a premiership player and dual All-Australian, while hauling in more marks than any other Magpie in recorded history.
While we have had prestigious key forward talent flourish in the 13 years since, think Josh Kennedy, Jack Riewoldt, Tom Hawkins and Tom Lynch we haven’t had a cluster of such exceptional talent all rise together, the likes of which we’re seeing this season.
Let’s take a look at these six players who all have the potential to make a serious name for themselves over the next decade.
The very fact that McKay is considered an even money Coleman Medal favourite at just 23 years of age is testament to how much of a serious talent we have on our hands.
For a couple of years now, Carlton’s #10 pick form the 2015 draft has been threatening to explode, posting back-to-back top-10 finishes for marks inside-50 in 2019 and 2020, yet he's burst forward this season and perhaps already established himself as the game’s premier key forward.
Through nine games, McKay leads the league in goals, scoring shots, marks inside-50 and total contested marks, while accounting for an incredible 27.5% of Carlton’s total score.
Via a variety of metrics, the 8-1 Western Bulldogs are presently housing the AFL’s most dominant attack, while its their 21-year old key forward who’s perhaps its most critical component.
While Naughton was initially drafted as a defender, and indeed looked excellent doing so as a teenager, Luke Beveridge moved him forward during the pre-season of 2019 in lieu of dwindling attacking options, and the results have been spectacular.
Like McKay, Naughton had previously used 2019 and 2020 as a serious stepping stone, but has taken his game to an entirely new level this season, sharing the lead with McKay for contested marks while also ranking top-3 for marks on the lead and marks inside-50.
His combination with Josh Bruce has worked wonders for the Doggies, with the duo so far combining for 48 goals and developing a wonderful understanding of each other’s games, allowing both to flourish simultaneously.
Not since Chris Grant in the early 1990s have the Bulldogs had such a young, exceptionally gifted talent of its hands, the likes of whom can continue to compliment such a stunning midfield and keep the club firmly in the premiership window.
The West Coast Eagles are something of a premiership producing factory, taking home at least one flag in each of the last 3 decades, while averaging a Grand Final appearance every 4 years over the last 30.
Their last premiership in 2018 was driven by the twin tower attack of Josh Kennedy and Jack Darling, while it appears their next era of contention will be in the capable hands of Oscar Allen.
While Allen’s career has so far been in the shadows of Kennedy and Darling, he’s already sketched out the framework of a potentially brilliant career, using the 2021 season to send a shiver through the rest of the league and reminding them of the enduring threat out west.
Allen’s just a single mark shy of leading the completion for contested marks and ranks 13th in the league for marks inside-50. The 19 goals he’s already kicked in 2021 are just a single major shy of his career-best, while he's doing all of this with a scintillating 65.5% goal accuracy.
Just 23 years old, but already 103 games and 154 goals under his belt, Eric Hipwood continues to fly under the radar where the league’s very best key forwards are concerned.
Hipwood’s first 3 seasons in Brisbane saw the club go 13-53, yet the elevation of his game has coincided with the LIons developing into a genuine league force, with the young Queenslander missing just 3 games since his 2016 debut, while his 179 marks inside-50 already rank 4th in Lions’ history.
What’s perhaps kept Hipwood from completely jumping into superstar territory is the lack of singular, jaw-dropping performances on his resume, so far registering just 4 games where he’s kicked more than 4 goals while also dialling up just 4 matches where he’s hauled in double digit marks.
Yet Hipwood, a little like Jarryd Roughead before him, is blessed with extraordinary versatility, coupled with a high-octane engine that enables him to cover so much ground, ultimately playing a massive role in Brisbane’s current 5-game winning streak, while also allowing Joe Daniher to thrive.
The Lions are on the cusp of something big, and you can be sure Hipwood will be at the epicentre of that success.
While the Matt Rowell hysteria is understandable, the reality is the budding Gold Coast superstar has played just 6 games of AFL football. While the young Victorian has the potential to be absolute anything, Ben King has put the runs on the board, already booting 67 goals in just 40 games while effectively functioning as the entirety of the Sun's forward line.
At just 20 years of age, King’s been responsible for 26.7% of Gold Coast’s total score this season, ranking 6th in the league for total goals and 8th for total marks inside-50, all the while doing so with a scorching 65.8% goal accuracy.
King hasn’t signed beyond season 2022 which will be causing cold sweats among the Sun's fanbase, cruelly reminding them of Tom Lynch’s exodus at the end of 2018.
If Suns are able to keep King long-term, coupled with the promise of Rowell and Noah Anderson, the framework is in place for the Suns to finally break their cycle of pain.
Max King entered the league with a lot of fanfare, taken at #4 overall by the Saints in the 2018 draft, yet he's already emerged as the most seductive young key forward talent St Kilda has had since Nick Riewoldt some 20 years ago.
Though King has only played 26 games, he’s already shaping as something of an inside-50 force, ranking top-ten in the league this season for marks inside-50 and total contested marks.
While King's 36.1% goal accuracy this season has been a black-eye on his overall output, slumping to a 1.5 return against Geelong last week, the very fact that the 20-year old was able to register 6 scoring shots and haul in 10 marks against one of the league’s most accomplished defences is more indicative of his unlimited potential.