Report card for returned Essendon players not great reading
There were plenty of "ifs" attached to how Essendon would fare in 2017, but unquestionably the biggest was the performance of the 10 players returning to AFL football after a year out suspended.
Would the year off prove a tonic for older faces like former skipper Jobe Watson and Brent Stanton, or see them struggling to catch up? Would key position players Michael Hurley and Cale Hooker continue their sparkling 2015 form or have that momentum disrupted?
And would lesser lights such as Ben Howlett and Heath Hocking be able to win their spots back thanks to the 2016 emergence of younger guns? Four games is too early to make definitive judgments, but as a group, the Bombers who returned have, so far, underwhelmed. Here's how they're faring individually.
Yet to play after an interrupted pre-season due to knee surgery, but performed well in the VFL last weekend and may be a chance to come into the side for Anzac Day to take on Collingwood's in-form Brodie Grundy. "I think physically and mentally he believes he is ready to go," coach John Worsfold said on Wednesday.
The most consistent of the returnees, the speedy little man has been good value on the outside of the stoppages and from a wing, and is also winning more contested ball. A lot more confident with his disposal and is winning a lot more ball, too, his average more than 20 for the first time in his 61-game career.
The new skipper was sensational in Essendon's opening-round win over Hawthorn, leading from the front and sealing the win with a big last-quarter goal. He has found it harder to have nearly the same impact since, though, despite his numbers remaining similar to those before his suspension. A smooth mover, but seems to be getting caught out for pace a little more.
Once a key member of the midfield group, injury in 2015 then the CAS bans kept Hocking to just five games over 2015-16, and the lack of game time has told. Played just the one game against Carlton, and after a dirty day was dropped. Lack of pace makes him handy for run-with roles but limited elsewhere.What the Dons get with his strong-bodied contest, they lose in leg speed.
Worsfold was standing by his man on Wednesday, insisting he would remain up forward despite many calls for the All-Australian defender to be returned to the backline. "When he is around the footy he looks unbelievably dangerous and creates a lot for us," he said. A hamstring injury at the wrong time pre-season hasn't helped, but Hooker has at times struggled to create much movement near goal or get on the lead with much conviction.
Like Hocking, an honest toiler, but struggling for a regular look-in now thanks to the emergence of more midfielders and several small forward options. Howlett came into the team for round two against Brisbane and played a role, but was straight out with a hamstring injury. Lack of pace could count against him for further chances .
Perhaps the player whose struggles have most hurt the Bombers, Hurley has at times looked a lot less than the 2015 All-Australian centre half-back. Yet to take a contested mark this season, he's tended to play more like a medium-sized defender than one occupying a key position, racking up more rebound 50s than in his last season, but not as effective at quelling the big gun forwards of the opposition.
A strong-bodied clearance winner in the clinches and a booming left-foot kick, Myers has been a big loss after finger surgery. Myers missed virtually the entire 2015 season, giving him just two games out of the last 48 the Bombers have played.
Fit and firing, a walk-up start in the best 22, but that best may be a way off yet.
The veteran has been notably quiet in each of the Dons' four games, though he did kick a couple of goals in the win over Hawthorn. Pushed out of the starting group, has taken to a half-back flank and wing.
Hasn't consistently provided the sort of rebound for which the Bombers were looking, though. Can he find it? Has just clocked up his 250th game, but Worsfold may find himself making a tough selection decision.
The veteran's numbers look OK enough, averaging 26 disposals in 2017. Watson's impact, though, hasn't been nearly as profound as usual. Struggling to recapture his efficient best, Watson's current disposal efficiency of 65.4 per cent is the lowest it's been in his career. An old warrior still important to the mix, but another whose lack of pace is perhaps becoming more of an achilles heel