Which AFL Clubs Actually Have The Best Young Talent?

There’s only one round left in the 2020 AFL home-and-away season and that means we’ve reached the time of year where many footy fans, such as yours truly, are about to see their team’s season end and searching for ways to console themselves.

And one of the very best strategies is to look at the talented young players on your AFL list, celebrate their achievements, and dream of the many premierships they’ll undoubtedly bring back to your trophy case in that murky and undefined time period known as the future.

But which AFL club has the league’s best youth? This is a loaded question that depends on two more: how do you define youth, and how do you define best? Today, we’ll take a look at a few different ways to go about it.

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Personally, I like to split AFL players into three categories – youth, peak, and veteran. Youth being the first six years of your career (18-23), peak being the next six (24-29), and veteran being anything that comes after (30+).

And to clarify, because it will become important momentarily, for the purposes of this article I’m considering any player who was 23 on January 1 this year to be a 23-year-old, even if they’ve turned 24 at some point between then and now. This helps prevent the numbers from becoming arbitrary depending on what time of year you look them up.

So, let me pitch you a new award: the AFL Coaches Association Young MVP. Requires no extra effort, we just give it to whichever player gets the most coaches votes during the year and is 23 or under on January 1 of that year. If we ran it in 2020, who gets the chocolates?

As you can see in the above graph, Christian Petracca is the runaway leader. Even with two more rounds of votes still to be revealed, he simply could not be caught – not surprising given he is in the top 3 of the overall count to start with.

Petracca aside, the names here are largely the ones you’d expect to see on any list of the best young players in the competition – although for mine, a few jumped out as reminder of just how young some of these players are.

Harris Andrews, Caleb Daniel and Dan Butler for example are players that feel like they’ve been around forever. That said, it is the last year in this category for all three of them, and Daniel and Butler are already 24.

At the other end of the scale, the incredible Matt Rowell. Assuming you still have all your digits you could count his career games on one hand, and yet here he is in the top 10 ahead of players who’ve been around three, four, five, six years.

Sam Walsh, too, finds himself in the top three despite have copped a ludicrous amount of criticism at times this year – and all the would-be 're-drafters' of the land should note that he’s still outpacing the likes of Bailey Smith, Zak Butters or Connor Rozee.

But while this chart is a good indication of the best young players going around, it doesn’t tell you how the AFL clubs compare. Let’s take a look at that next.

In Petracca and Clayton Oliver, Melbourne possess two of the top five vote-getters from our first chart, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that overall they’ve got the most votes by players 23-and-under of any AFL club.

Unsurprisingly, clubs who’ve had some high draft picks in recent years like Gold Coast, Brisbane and Fremantle aren’t far behind, suggesting all three have bright futures (or in the case of the Lions, a bright present).

More ominous is Richmond who come in fifth despite being the reigning premiers and current flag favourites. 

Shai Bolton, Noah Balta, Jack Graham, Liam Baker, Jayden Short, Derek Eggmolesse-Smith, Jack Higgins and Daniel Rioli have all scored votes for them this season – suggesting that there’s plenty of young talent ready to step up when their mature premiership stars reach retirement age. 

In fact, if we cut this back to players 22 and under, or players 21 and under, Richmond lead the league for both counts. Gold Coast are on top of the table if we look at 20 and under, 19 and under, or 18-year-olds.

At the other end of the table, North Melbourne, Adelaide and Hawthorn have a worryingly low number of youth votes given that all three appear to be at the beginning of rebuilds. 

Granted, it’s hard to get votes in teams that lose a lot, but Sydney are in the bottom four on the AFL ladder also, yet have a very solid 72 votes from their youth contingent.

Coaches votes are a great measure of talent for any age group, but if we want to look at an award that is specifically built around young players, the AFL’s Rising Star award is where we’re headed.

In the graph above you can see how many Rising Star nominations each club has received over the last five years, counting from Round 1 2016 through to the present.

Sydney fans have yet more reason to get excited here with an equal-competition-high eight nominations in that time period, and that puts them level with Carlton who also featured prominently in our previous chart, seventh in the comp for coaches votes by players 23 and under.

But probably the biggest takeaway from this chart is that it’s fairly level – most clubs have had between five and eight nominations in the last five years, and with so many nominations particular in the latter part of the year being close calls, could easily be shuffled higher or lower with a bit of luck.

The only real outlier is Adelaide who’ve had only two nominations in the last five seasons – Tom Doedee and Wayne Milera.

And if we look at it from a different perspective…The Crows are currently enduring the longest drought of any club since their last Rising Star nomination, which has just this week gone past the 900-day mark.

Now, it’s a timely stat to mention because many Crows fans would tell you (accurately) that Lachie Sholl probably should’ve gotten the most recent nomination for his terrific game against Carlton in Round 16.

I certainly thought Sholl was in the box seat for it, but instead it was picked up by Isaac Quaynor, who is very much a quality young prospect and played well this week, though I suspect most would’ve still had Sholl ahead of him.

So, Adelaide could feel hard-done-by to be featuring so poorly in our last two charts – and given they already possess a clutch of early picks in this year’s draft, one suspects they’ll improve quickly.

A pessimistic Crows fan might worry: are the suffering the competition’s biggest ever Rising Star drought, or close to? Fear not, for they’d have to miss out nearly another three years to beat the Western Bulldog’s record of 1869 days between Luke Darcy and Luke Penny in 1996-2001.

At the other end of that scale is a record set earlier this year, and which I don’t think we’ll see broken any time soon – Melbourne had to wait just four days between the nominations of 2019 first-round draft picks Luke Jackson and Kysaiah Pickett in rounds 10 and 11 respectively.

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For mine, the biggest takeaway from the numbers here is that Melbourne probably deserve more breathing space than we tend to give them.

The Dees are often talked about as a team that should be good right now, but the fact that so many of their key players are still in the early part of their careers suggests they have plenty of time to grow into premiership contention.

Meanwhile, Richmond quietly have one of the best clutches of young players in the league, and particularly when it comes to the very young, Gold Coast are unsurprisingly head and shoulders above the rest.

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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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