Excellent read, written a month ago, but still very much relevant.
I share with the writer’s sentiment, we are better off not trading in Shiel, and backing in the players we have at our disposal. Next year’s best 22 could have up to 5 inexperienced players (Begley, Laverde, Francis - he played only ten games - Redman, and Ridley).
Based on our finish to the season and the talent we have at the moment, we are good enough to push for top 4 team next year, but to be actually a top 4 team, we need more experience/games in our 1st-4th year players first. That should happen in 2021/22.
So, Shiel would be a great get, but in the long term, we are better off not getting him, and heading to the draft with a first round pick. Although, you never really know what you are going to get from the draft, if we get Martin and Setterfield and retain a first round pick, it would be a massive bonus.
After rising all the way from spoon to finals in 2017 and going on a recruiting spree to finish the year, Essendon slid back out of Septemeber in 2018.
It was a disappointing year to be certain but Bombers fans shouldn’t get too down in the dumps – there’s plenty of reason to believe they’ll be back in a big way next season.
They’re in the mix to make a big move at the trade table again this year, showing significant interest in Dylan Shiel – but is it wise, or do they risk making one of the AFL’s classic big mistakes?
### List breakdown
If you were to take a quick squiz at list age then you’d see why the Dons were expected to make finals in 2018. They were the seventh oldest list at the start of the year, just shy of 24 years.
However Essendon’s list age is arguably a little misleading. Rather than reflecting a mature list in its prime, it represents one that has recruited a number of mature but inexperienced players in recent years.
This was done primarily to help the Dons survive the 2016 season, and saw the arrival of players like Matt Dea, Mitch Brown, Michael Hartley, Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti and Shaun McKernan at the club.
As such while they were seventh for list age, they were eleventh for list experience, a significant dropoff here owing to the departures of players such as Jobe Watson and James Kelly at the end of 2017.
Ultimately the Bombers invested 31 per cent of all games into players 23-and-under this year, below the league average of 38, but not significantly so.
They picked up 68 AFLCA votes from this group which is on par with the league average of 71 – but the vast majority came from two players who will age out of this category in 2019.
Zach Merrett and Orazio Fantasia, both 23, picked up a combined 57 of these 68 votes, and in 2019 it’ll be left to the Dons’ more fresh-blooded youth to pick up the slack.
(Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)
There’s some players here you really believe could do that – in particular Conor McKenna, Kyle Langford, Darcy Parish, Aaron Francis and Andy McGrath all seem to have great untapped potential, while Jayden Laverde, Josh Begley, Dylan Clarke and Jordan Ridley would be in the mix as well.
Games that didn’t go into young players instead went to prime-agers, which doesn’t come as a surprise for a club that recruited three new players into this category at the end of 2017.
Adam Saad, Jake Stringer and particular Devon Smith all justified the expense this year. Other key players here included Joe Daniher, Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuit, Dyson Heppell, Michael Hurley, David Zaharakis and Tom Bellchambers.
This group is further filled out by the likes of James Stewart, Michael Hartley, Matt Dea, Patrick Ambrose, Travis Colyer, Shaun McKernan, Mitch Brown and David Myers – a handy enough group to have on the fringe of your best 22, though given the Dons fell short of finals some would ask if it was worth playing some of them over youth.
Altogether the Bombers acquired 224 AFLCA votes from this group, well above the league average of 180.
In fact Essendon are the first team we’ve discussed who finished with a higher total of AFLCA votes across the team than on the average AFL list – strongly suggesting that it wasn’t a lack of player talent in 2018 that kept them from playing finals.
The Bombers invested a fairly standard 13 per cent of games into veterans Cale Hooker, Mark Baguley and Brendon Goddard, with 30 AFLCA votes being a lower than average but not too poor return from this group.
They’ve already decided to move Goddard on and will need to make a call on Baguley as well – Hooker is signed up for three years to come and looks set to become the side’s premier elder statesman.
(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images)
Overall I’m a fan of Essendon’s list. They’ve got abundant talent in just about every area of the ground, and that talent is spread reasonably evenly over the different age groups on their list.
Jobe Watson’s retirement probably exposed them for a lack of inside midfield strength this season, and it shapes as their biggest list need.
However, I’m sceptical that you need to be a dominant inside midfield team to be a good team in the modern AFL. Richmond, West Coast and Hawthorn have all made top four this year without being especially good here.
I would not want to see the Dons seek out one-dimensional inside midfield types on the assumption that will make them a better team – it won’t.
Instead they should be looking more at a hybrid midfielder – one for whom the ability to win the ball is just part of a well-rounded game.
I’d also be looking at investing in some young key defenders. Cale Hooker and Michael Hurley are a great pairing right now but it’d be a good idea to bring in some developing types to eventually replace them – not an immediate priority though.
### Underperformed or overperformed?
Essendon’s strange disparity between age and experience makes this one a bit hard to work out as well.
They fielded a team that was pretty much exactly 25 and a half on average, so older than the average team, and in fact the sixth oldest of the year.
However they had 2005 games of experience on the field on average, which is just a little below the AFL average of 2035, making them tenth for experience in 2018.
They ultimately finished in 11th place with a 12-10 record and a percentage of 105.1.
Verdict: They underperformed from an age perspective but got it about right from an experience perspective. I reckon experience gives a more accurate reflection of where this team’s list is at, so I’ll say about even, maybe slightly underperforming.
The Bombers don’t have any significant worries with players coming out of contract this year, but do have a few they need to make a decision on sooner or later.
They’ve already told Brendon Goddard and Jackson Merrett they won’t be needed in 2019 and while the former in particular was a hard decision to make, it’s the right call.
Goddard has been a valuable servant for Essendon in his time there but his numbers dropped significantly in 2019.
He’d still arguably start the season as part of the best 22 but I don’t think he’d finish it there, and better to go out with a little gas left in the tank.
What Essendon do still have left to do is make decisions on a number of players who, while not necesarilly being vital to the team, provide depth.
I’m talking about Mark Baguley, Shaun McKernan, Mitch Brown, James Stewart, Michael Hartley, Josh Green and Matthew Leuenberger.
As hard as it is, I’d consider letting Baguley go – while he showed some value being shifted to the forward line this year, it feels like his days as an AFL player are numbered.
McKernan, Brown, Stewart and Hartley I would keep on, but Green and Leuenberger look likely to be moved on.
Essendon’s big signing priorities for 2019 will be Aaron Francis and Darcy Parish. Francis in particular would be good to lock up right away – he has expressed interest in going home before, so the sooner the Bombers can nip that in the bud, the better.
(Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)
Parish had a challenging season at times but finished the year in fairly good form. It’s hard to see him playing anywhere other than Essendon.
> Michael Hurley
> Orazio Fantasia
> Cale Hooker
> Conor McKenna
> Zach Merrett
> Devon Smith
> Jake Stringer
> David Zaharakis
> Josh Begley
> Tom Bellchambers
> Joe Daniher
> Martin Gleeson
> Dyson Heppell
> Jordan Houlahan
> Kyle Langford
> Andy McGrath
> Kobe Mutch
> Jordan Ridley
> Adam Saad
> Brandon Zerk-Thatcher
> Patrick Ambrose
> Dylan Clarke
> Travis Colyer
> Aaron Francis
> Matt Guelfi
> Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti
> David Myers
> Darcy Parish
> Mason Redman
> Out of contract
> Mark Baguley
> Mitch Brown
> Matt Dea
> Sam Draper
> Brendon Goddard
> Josh Green
> Michael Hartley
> Luke Lavender
> Matt Leuenberger
> Jake Long
> Shaun McKernan
> Ben McNiece
> Jackson Merrett
> Trent Mynott
> James Stewart
### Free agency
Tom Bellchambers was Essendon’s only free agent this year, and has already been given a contract extension that will secure him until the end of 2020.
Instead the Bombers might look to free agency as a way of addressing their need for some inside midfield muscle.
One player they’ve been linked to is Mitch Wallis of the Western Bulldogs – there was even talk that former Jake Stringer had put in a few calls to him.
Wallis would essentially be a free hit for the Bombers given he’s not likely to command too much in the way of salary or cost anything at the trade table.
That said, I don’t think he’s likely to provide a lot of value to them – he fits into that bracket of relatively one-dimensional inside midfielders who can get the ball but do little with it.
That’s just not the kind of player you need in the AFL anymore these days.
Rather, if I were looking for a free agent at Essendon, I’d be considering Wallis’ Bulldogs teammate, Tom Liberatore.
‘Libba’ obviously has some question marks over him. He missed almost this entire season due to a second ACL injury, and has in the past been widely known as the league’s loosest unit.
Those are probably legitimate things to be concerned about but if you’re looking for a free agent this year who most closely matches the type of player Essendon need, he is it.
Neither looks especially likely though – news went around just recently that both are on the verge of recommitting to the Bulldogs.
That being the case, I don’t expect to see Essendon get involved in free agency this year.
### Trade period
Instead it looks like if Essendon make a big play to bring in mature talent this year, it will come not through a free agency signing but at the trade table.
The player they’ve been linked to here is Dylan Shiel, and in terms of what their list needs, I believe he’d be just about the perfect fit.
(Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)
Some will point out that Shiel has been more of an outside-leaning midfielder at GWS, and that’s true.
However, I look at him a bit like Devon Smith last year. People questioned his ability to play in the middle, but it was always there – he just hadn’t had the chance to show it in a stacked Giants side.
Shiel may only have average 4.5 clearances per game in 2018 be he averaged 6.4 per game in 2017, and in fact was in the top ten leaguewide for most clearances that year.
Put him in the centre of things at Essendon and I have no doubt in my mind he’ll provide prolific ball-winning alongside the proven ability to play with class and dynamism outside the contest.
So what’s the deal with Shiel? He’s currently contracted for 2019, at the end of which he’ll be a restricted free agent, but there’s specualtion he might return to Victoria early.
GWS are reportedly facing something of a salary cap crunch and are probably going to have to lose someone this year.
I’d imagine they’re figuring that if Shiel is already certain to go next year – which seems to be the case – then why not bite the bullet and trade him this year?
This is where the Dons come in, but there are other clubs clamouring for his signature – Hawthorn and Carlton.
I wouldn’t worry too much about the Blues, but the recent talk is that Hawthorn are probably the leading contender for Shiel’s signature.
If Shiel did want to come to Essendon then you’d suspect at a minimum they’ll need to give up this year’s first round pick, and possibly next year’s as well.
That’s a big price to pay for a player who could be had for free next year, but it might be the Dons’ best chance of pipping Hawthorn at the post.
If GWS have any sort of ability to push Shiel in one direction or another it’ll be the club that can give them the best deal and short of Carlton offering picking 1, that’s probably Essendon.
If Shiel doesn’t materialise, then the next best players on the trade market would probably be Dan Hannebery and Lachie Neale respectively.
Both would fit the hole Essendon is looking to fill fairly well, but seem likely to go to St Kilda and Brisbane respectively if they do move.
The Bombers have also been linked to Melbourne’s Dom Tyson, but he looks likely to stay with the Demons after working his way back into the best side.
They might instead look at a younger player – and they’ve already been linked to GWS’ Will Setterfield, another in the mix to be a salary cap sacrifice.
The Bombers have long had an interest in Setterfield, and went as far as considering bidding on him with pick 1 in his draft year.
He’s recovering from an ACL injury right now so won’t have an immediate impact, but does fit the mould of player they’re after, and might be able to be had relatively cheaply given his situation.
The other I’d be strongly looking at is Gold Coast’s Will Brodie who, while he hasn’t made a request of any kind yet, has been rumoured to be interested in a move home.
Brodie too is only an emerging player, but very much the type that the Dons would like to get their hands on. Contracted for the next two years, he wouldn’t come cheap.
(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)
As things stand Essendon have their own pick, currently pick 8 but likely to be 9, and GWS’ second-round pick inside the first three rounds.
There’s a good chance they’ll be moving that first pick on – certainly if they’re going to make a trade for Shiel, or perhaps instead for a deal brining in Will Setterfield.
However if they do take it into the draft, then there’s a few players there who might make sense for their list.
Bailey Smith would’ve been an ideal recruit as a powerful inside midfielder with some speed, but looks likely to find a home in the top six.
Instead at Essendon’s pick they’d probably be looking at either Jye Caldwell or Jackson Hately. Hately has a bigger frame, while Caldwell is arguably more proven in the role. Both would be fine choices.
### What I said last year
“Their immediate prospects will depend a bit on how much the departure of some veterans affects them, and how they ultimately respond to copping a finals shellacking.
“There’s every chance that it takes them some time to properly transition, and they fall short of finals in 2018.
“Dons fans should be excited. The club appears to be in the best position that it has been since the departure of Kevin Sheedy, and there’ll be much to enjoy in the years to come.”
I wasn’t ultimately too stunned that the Bombers fell short of finals this year, although they seemed to be troubled less by covering for retirements and more with coaching problems.
Their struggles early on ultimately seemed to be the result of a poor coaching set up that appears to have been resolved after the mid-season sacking of Mark Neeld.
After that, the Bombers finished the season going 10-4 in their last fourteen games, and all four of those losses came against opponents who ultimately finished in the top four.
All signs point to the conclusion that while Essendon disappointed in 2018, their playing list isn’t the reason why.
For that reason I’m still very bullish on their future prospects – they’ve got a nice spread of talent across the different areas of the ground and age groups, something I haven’t been able to say about many teams yet.
What would offer them a really big boost towards premiership contender status is the addition of someone who can be their No.1 midfielder, and their interest in Dylan Shiel doesn’t surprise.
Shiel is a perfect fit for the Bombers in my book but what worries me is that they might be making the big mistake that so many AFL clubs seem to rush into making.
Because they brought in three players last offseason, they had almost no involvement in the draft.
That trade period could at best be called a qualified success – all three players were valuable contributors, Smith probably Essendon’s best for the year, but it didn’t move the team up the ladder any.
They did fill something of a small age gap that was on the Bombers’ list, so I’m happy enough to tick it off.
Shiel, while worth getting, would cost Essendon at least one and quite possibly two first round draft picks, meaning two or three years in a row of missing out on the chance to draft top-tier talent.
And if Shiel doesn’t deliver a flag right away then aren’t they just going to feel pressure to keep trading away picks for mature talent, having already banked so much on immediate success?
That is exactly how well-balanced lists start to crumble because while it’s not an immediate problem, at some point Essendon will need the players they should be drafting early now to stand up and shoulder the load – and they might not be there.
They have invested heavily at the draft not too long ago and so have some good enough young talents that they can probably afford to do a deal like this and hope for the best, but I worry they’re going to become a club who tries to go big at the trade table every year.
Consider the clubs who landed big trade stars last year: the Dons themselves, Port Adelaide and Adelaide. All went backwards in 2018.
Or consider Collingwood – they hit the trade table year after year and kept going backwards on the ladder. Last year they had a quiet one and suddenly shot up!
That’s simplistic analysis of course, but I do believe it’s probably the most common mistake in AFL list management that the second clubs feel like they’re on a good wicket, they sacrifice the longterm balance of the list to bring in talent for success here and now.
It can work if you can do it every year without fail as a team like Hawthorn has for the better part of a decade now, but just because it works for Hawthorn doesn’t mean it is going to work for everybody.
To do what Hawthorn have done you need to be at the top of the trade destination totem pole and Essendon, currently suffering the longest active finals win drought in the competition, are not.
People will say draft picks are no guarantee to be better than the players you could trade them for and yes, that’s true.
However they’re also no guarantee to be worse – Essendon should know this better than any. Consider the fact they got Zach Merrett with the pick they traded in when Stewart Crameri left.
The addition of Dylan Shiel in 2019 might well see Essendon become a premiership contender right away so I am by no means saying it would be a bad move.
Victorian clubs in particular seem to feel that the best strategy is to win a flag as soon as possible and then hope this elevates you to being the league’s preferred trade destination and that you can use this to extend your window as long as possible.
And hey – there’s every chance that could work for the Bombers. They’re a big enough club that they’ll become very attractive to players wanting to come to Victoria if they win a flag.
However my instinct would instead be to take a more organic view of list strategy and look at ways to improve the list without compromising to a significant degree the club’s involvement in the draft.
Shiel is believed to be torn between staying with GWS for one more year and coming home early anyway, so if he wants to join the Bombers why not shake his hand under the table that it’ll happen as a free agent next year instead?
David Swallow and Stephen Coniglio are both free agents at the end of 2019 also and while neither is Victorian by birth, it couldn’t hurt to make contact early and see if either would consider the move next year – especially if Shiel favours Hawthorn.
That said, if I were a Bombers fan I’d be equally as happy to see someone like Jye Caldwell come in as a fresh draftee as I would Dylan Shiel, and know that the club is backing itself to build sustainable success organically through the draft.
Whichever path they go down, Essendon are set to enjoy some success in the short and medium term – I reckon they ought to be back in finals next year, and would be a serious chance to jump into the top four, even challenge for the flag – especially if they bring in Dylan Shiel.
Long term depends more on their capacity for patience and ability to resist the urge to make rash decisions in search of immediate success.
If they navigate these waters wisely, they’ve got a solid platform already upon which to build an era of success.