AFL 1 year ago

2017 AFL Season Preview Part Two: The Top Eight

  • 2017 AFL Season Preview Part Two: The Top Eight

    MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 18: Robert Murphy of the Bulldogs leads his team out onto the field during the 2017 JLT Community Series match between the Western Bulldogs and the Melbourne Demons at Whitten Oval on February 18, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Today on Bulldogs Centre is part two of my Season preview, which will see where I predict the order of the top eight teams. 

In case you missed yesterday's piece here are the bottom 10:

18 - Brisbane Lions
17 - Carlton
16 - North Melbourne
15 - Fremantle
14 - Richmond
13 - Gold Coast Suns
12 - Essendon
11 - Collingwood
10 - Port Adelaide
9 - Melbourne

You can see full explanations of the teams HERE

Now without further ado, here is the top eight.

8th - West Coast

After reaching the Grand Final in 2015 only to be pummeled from pillar-to-post against Hawthorn, the Eagles looked to have gone a step or two backwards last year, finishing sixth but were bundled out in emphatic fashion by the Western Bulldogs who eventually went on to win the premiership. They then recieved a massive boost in their midfield when they acquired premiership midfielder Sam Mitchell from Hawthorn. Partner him with another Brownlow medallist in Matt Priddis, along with Luke Shuey and Andrew Gaff who are stars, then that's an unbelievable quartet of midfielders, but they need their support cast to stand up. Injuries hampered Dom Sheed's 2016 campaign, whilst Chris Masten, Elliot Yeo, Lewis Jetta and Jack Redden are all solid players, but often go missing in big time games.

A big question mark hangs over this team as to whether or not the Eagles can operate effectively with the injury to their star ruckman Nic Naitanui, who injured his ACL late last year and will miss a fair portion of the year and Scott Lycett and Jon Giles have injury setbacks of their own. Can discarded Roo Drew Petrie show that he still has what it takes to make it at AFL level? And can Nathan Vardy shake off the injury plague that has haunted him over the years at Geelong? The Eagles have the talent and the leadership to play finals, even go top four, but it all relies on their depth and how far the lesser names want to go.

Their forward line is potent, Josh Kennedy is a proven star, but he needs Jack Darling to step up and be a 60-goal player. I'm a huge Mark LeCras fan and should be slotting around 40-50 goals and Jamie Cripps and Josh Hill have the talent but they too, often go missing when it comes to big game scenarios. Down back, Shannon Hurn is an extraordinary captain,I've enjoyed watching Jeremy McGovern and his intercept marking in the backline over the past two seasons, and with young Tom Barrass emerging as a solid key defender as well, we could see McGovern push up the ground to be more of an 'All-Round' player this year, which is always a handy trait to have in a player.

7th - Hawthorn

Hawthorn in 2017 are an interesting team to assess for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that their new captain Jarryd Roughead will play his first game since the 2015 Grand Final after knee surgery initially kept him out before he was diagnosed with melanoma for the second time in his life, but with him now cancer-free, round one's encounter is not only a renewing of hostilities with old rivals Geelong, but an emotional return to one of Hawthorn's more beloved players - not only have fans missed his influence in games, but they've missed his character.

The second reason is how they will combat in the absence of premier ball-winners Jordan Lewis and Sam Mitchell as both men were shockingly traded away at the end of last year. Both men were the top two possession getters in the side last year, with Mitchell averaging just under 30 possessions and Lewis averaging 26 disposals. After three successive premierships, the Hawks were bundled out of the Finals last year in straight sets, and from there, coach Alastair Clarkson simply had to make changes. Signing Tom Mitchell and Jaeger O'Meara to replace Mitchell and Lewis might be a headscratcher to some, but I have faith in what the Hawks are trying to achieve. The stage is set for the ex-Swan Mitchell to emerge from the shadows of elite on-ballers and become one himself, and if the very talented O'Meara can keep healthy, then the Hawks have justified their off-season of mystery.

With that said, they still have the talent to play finals, the question is where they will end up? Shaun Burgoyne, Luke Hodge and Josh Gibson are ageing in defence but still carry the talent required to play finals, Billy Hartung should replace Fremantle recruit Bradley Hill on the wing and could possibly breakout for a big year, whilst down forward should be as dangerous as ever. Luke Breust and Jack Gunston would've been overjoyed to have Roughy back forward this year and all three will be running for 50-goal seasons this year, much-maligned recruit Ty Vickery will play a role similar to what David Hale - I expect him to have a good year under a much better system than Richmond and who can forget Cyril? His ability to turn forward pressure into goals is absolutely invaluable. 

6th - St. Kilda

Right now, St. Kilda's playing list looks so damn promising, it's difficult not to put them in the eight. They surprised everyone by finishing 2016 in ninth spot, a game outside the eight. This past off-season they acquired midfielders Koby Stevens and Jack Steele (Pictured Above) to boost what was perhaps their biggest weakness - a lack of midfield depth. Both men struggled for opportunities in their previous clubs, but should see some solid game time this year, Steele in particular, can break out and become another key cog in their engine room. Combine their talents with Jack Steven, Jack Newnes, David Armitage and Seb Ross, then it starts to look very formidable.

I love St. Kilda's forward structure. Tim Membrey came to the Saints from Sydney as a delisted free agent a couple of years ago, and since then has become a leading goal-kicker, snagging 44 goals in 17 games last year which is a mighty effort. Josh Bruce went from 50 goals in 2015 to 38 last year, but spent more time as a high, half-forward option to allow Membrey and Paddy McCartin - who also continues to improve - goal-kicking opportunities, Jade Gresham and Jack Billings are lethal whenever they go down forward and Nick Riewoldt, despite father time catching up to him quickly, continues to play like he's in his prime.

I also think their defensive unit looks a solid group. Jake Carlisle and Nathan Brown are handy inclusions at the key posts. Carlisle boasts very good hands, but has had attitude problems and is coming back from a 12-month suspension, whilst Brown has had a number of injury complaints over the years. It'll be interesting to see how they fare amongst an already solid unit. Jarryn Geary leads the team this year which will surprise most outsiders, but Saints insiders will know he's the right man for the job. He's fearless, selfless and is reliable in defence when it comes to one-on-ones. 

5th - Adelaide

In head coach Don Pyke's first year in charge, the Crows finished just outside the top four, with a loss in the final round of the home and away season denying them that opportunity in the end. They bowed out of the Semi Final in 2015 in convincing fashion and last year was no different. They have the talent on every line, but the problem lies in their midfield. It's good, but it has too many inside players and are one or two outside players short of a serious premiership tilt.

They should've landed Bryce Gibbs from Carlton last year, but the stubbornness of the Crows' list management cost them a little bit, as not only did they refuse to yield to Carlton's demands, they lost a promising mid in Jarryd Lyons to the Gold Coast in the process, but it might not hurt them as many are suggesting. Rory Sloane's always been a solid player, but has elevated his game to elite status since Patrick Dangerfield departed West Lakes, the Crouch brothers are contested bulls and Scott Thompson has been a workhorse in the engine room for many years. They need the likes of Rory Atkins, Riley Knight and Paul Seedsman to improve and play serious minutes if the Crows want to contend this year.

The Crows boast one of the best forward lines in the AFL today. Their leading goal-kicker last year is a small forward called Eddie Betts who has the uncanny ability to kick goals from anywhere inside 50 - he is insane! Josh Jenkins broke through for a 62-goal season, captain Taylor Walker and Tom Lynch had 40-goal seasons and Mitch McGovern was unearthed as another dangerous threat down forward, kicking 32 goals in his debut season. Their defence is not to be overlooked either. Rory Laird and Brodie Smith are simply scintillating off half-back with their foot skills and running ability, Daniel Talia is a premier lockdown defender and Jake Lever is emerging as a promising partner-in-crime for him.

4th - Geelong

After falling out of the eight in 2015, Geelong skyrocketed back into the top four last year, but were humbled in the Preliminary Final by Sydney. Patrick Dangerfield (Pictured Above) and Joel Selwood formed a dangerous pairing with the former lifting his game to another level, which resulted in a Brownlow Medal. I expect them to reach the top four again this year, but the big issue is whether or not the Cats have the midfield depth to be a legitimate premiership contender this year.

After Dangerfield and Selwood, there is really no other bona fide star in their engine room. Mitch Duncan and Cam Guthrie have often been on the brink of reaching the elite bracket of midfielders but just haven't been able to string their performances together. Scott Selwood's proven to be a solid contributor in years gone by, but the Cats need him fit and firing for him to have an impact, I'd like to see more of Sam Menegola after he impressed in eight games in his debut season and the pair of Nakia Cockatoo and Darcy Lang have are on the verge of breaking out into regular spots in Geelong's 22.

The retirement of Corey Enright is massive, given his influence in this team over the years, but that's why Zach Tuohy was brought in over the off-season - He may not be as influential, but he still possesses the foot skills and the run to be a weapon at half-back. They also have Jackson Thurlow coming back from injury and he too, carries a fair amount of pace on him, whilst on the other end, they'll need some support for Tom Hawkins and Daniel Menzel up forward. The gamble on Mitch Clark failed, but can ex-Roo Aaron Black provide something with this lifeline? and can Steven Motlop finally emerge as a superstar in this team? His talent is enormous, but his consistency has always been an issue.

3rd - Sydney

Somebody told me this during last year's Finals Series: 

"There are three things certain in life: Death, Taxes and the Sydney Swans making the top four."

The Swans have always found themselves in the Finals picture, but they've been in the top four every year since 2012 and given the blend of talent, experience and youth, the Swans will find themselves up their again this year, but I can sense pressure is mounting on John Longmire to deliver the Swans another premiership. Since 2012 they've made the Grand Final three times and have only won it once, and that was in 2012. They were thumped by Hawthorn a couple of years ago and were overwhelmed by the Western Bulldogs last year. What's stopping them winning multiple flags?

Their big three in the midfield of Luke Parker, Dan Hannebery and new captain Josh Kennedy are all awesome players, but from there, who else do the Swans have in the engine room? With Tom Mitchell's defection to Hawthorn, this'll give the younger players such as Isaac Heeney and Callum Mills opportunity to further their developments, Heeney in particular would be almost ready to breakout into a star in this team. I would also love to see Sydney continue to unearth and develop all these 'Diamond-in-the-rough' players. It's the one thing I love the most about this Sydney side, guys such as Tom Papley, Aliir Aliir and Sam Naismith have come from nowhere to play such pivotal roles in this Sydney team last year and will continue to do so in years to come. Dane Rampe was in a similar boat a few years ago and now he's an All-Australian, it's truly amazing.

But the one thing they need to work on is to find other avenues to goal. Yes, Lance Franklin is arguably the greatest key forward in the nation right now, but they do get 'Pro-Buddy' when they need a game to be won. He kicked nothing in their qualifying final and kicked one goal in last year's Grand Final. In order for the Swans to be a massive premiership threat, they need Sam Reid fit and healthy, Kurt Tippett to do what the club signed him for and stop dilly-dallying with his dollars and Gary Rohan to actually turn up to games.

2nd - Western Bulldogs

They pulled the biggest miracle out of their backside and won their first premiership in over 60 years, but there have been people quick to knock them back down the ladder. I don't believe that is the case, rather they'll continue to improve and rocket into a top-four place and rightfully contend for back-to-back flags. The only concern is that there are now teams working to pick apart the Bulldogs' frantic ball movement and with being the premiers, have a massive target on their back.

The biggest issue last year was their inability to kick a winning score, as they only averaged 84 points a game during the home and away season, but with Stewart Crameri returning from suspension this year and a seemingly-reinvigorated Travis Cloke coming into the team this year, I'm convinced this forward line can be capable of kicking a winning score. Jake Stringer copped a lot defensively and Tory Dickson had injury niggles, but both men still kicked 40-plus goals last year, which will worry opposition defenders. I'd also love to see Tom Boyd continue to play as a ruck-forward option, and given his performance in the Grand Final last year, I think fellow Bulldog fans will agree.

Everyone talks about the midfield brigade as one of the best in the league and rightfully so, Marcus Bontempelli has hit superstar status already and he's only 21 and Jack Macrae, Lachie Hunter, Luke Dahlhaus and Tom Liberatore are consistently solid. But it's their batch of defenders that make this team what it is. Dale Morris and Matthew Boyd seemingly just get better as they get older, Jason Johannisen is an elite running machine out of half back and with their captain Robert Murphy back in the team this year after missing most of last year with a knee injury, I don't see any reason why they can't go back-to-back.

1st - Greater Western Sydney

2016 was a breakout year for the Giants, as they not only made finals for the first time in the club's short history, but they roared into the top four and won their first final in the first week, before suffering a preliminary final heartbreak that can only propel them to greater heights. Yes that's right, I firmly believe that the Giants can use that six-point loss to the Bulldogs in the Preliminary Final last year as fuel to not only get them to the Grand Final, but win it all.

Instead of asking the 'What-ifs?' from that Preliminary Final - Steve Johnson's suspension and Callan Ward's mid-game concussion the main focal points - Giants fans should look forward to what's in store this year. If Brett Deledio can get fit and firing, then that takes less pressure off the likes of Johnson as well as Toby Greene (Pictured Above), who broke out in 2016 and Jeremy Cameron and that's frightening given that all three men kicked over 40 goals last year and on top of that, you've got Jonathan Patton who's finally coming into his own and terrorised defenders on a regular basis last year and Rory Lobb has provided to be a handy third tall forward as well as the back-up to Shane Mumford.

Their midfield group is also something to behold, with their young brigade in Stephen Coniglio, Dylan Shiel, Lachie Whitfield and Josh Kelly all having sensational years, and with the support of the senior players like Tom Scully, Ryan Griffen and Callan Ward, this midfield is only going to get better. Does number two draft pick Tim Taranto get a game early this season? His form in the pre-season may warrant a spot, but with a midfield as elite as this, it's going to be tough to break in. Don't undermine the defence either. Co-captain Phil Davis and emerging star Nick Haynes is a solid key defensive pairing, and the run of Heath Shaw, Zac Williams and Nathan Wilson has been fun to watch so far. 

Pictures Courtesy of Getty Images

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