Why chaos could reign at this year’s AFL draft

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West Coast are poised to keep the top pick for Monday night’s AFL draft. That’s the common view, although the Eagles still have the option to trade it before the first selection is made.

But another pick could become a hot-ticket item and throw the top of the draft into chaos – West Coast’s 2024 first-rounder.

Will West Coast keep pick one, and use it on Victoria’s Harley Reid?Credit: Eddie Jim

In a draft already set to be the wildest in years, it’s a look ahead to the talent available in 2024 that could make this year’s draft even more interesting.

Not since the 2020 edition, when North Melbourne surprised everyone by taking Will Phillips at No.3, busting all top-10 predictions, have there been so many possibilities from early in the draft.

Why would West Coast trade their future first-round pick?

North Melbourne, Hawthorn and Melbourne all had a red-hot go at trying to prise the No.1 choice off West Coast.

The deadline for the Eagles to accept a pre-draft offer for the top pick in 2023 passed last Friday. But they can still trade it on Monday night, when the first round will take place, although most clubs expect them to keep it and select gun Victorian Harley Reid.

However, opposition recruiters believe the Eagles’ 2024 first-rounder – which will be an early choice again if they struggle next season – is up for grabs, with no Western Australians among next year’s top-liners at this stage. Any potential trade would be with this year’s top WA prospect, Daniel Curtin, in mind. For months, the talk was the Eagles would have to choose between Reid or Curtin, but this scenario would enable them to snare both.

Victorian midfielders Finn O’Sullivan, Josh Smillie, Levi Ashcroft – the Brisbane-bound brother of Will, and son of Marcus – and Jagga Smith are potential top-five selections next year, while South Australia’s Sid Draper was an under-18 All-Australian this year as a “bottom-ager”.

Those names won’t mean much to the average AFL fan right now, but they mean plenty to recruiters already plotting ways to get their hands on the most promising underage talent.

Hulking Gold Coast academy forward Jed Walter will be an early pick.Credit: AFL Photos

There are paper-thin margins between this year’s top prospects, at least behind Reid and Gold Coast academy hotshot Jed Walter (a hulking key forward), before the 2023 draft class evens out as early as the teens, where club preference will determine how the order plays out.

And team plans could be altered further if North Melbourne repeat history and do a “2020”. They have picks two and three, are potential bidders on Walter, and could change the course of the draft if they go in a direction other than two of Colby McKercher, Zane Duursma and Nick Watson.

To swap or not to swap?

Live trading during the draft, which was introduced in 2018, means list and recruiting managers will frantically work the phones as certain players slide, weighing up the risk and reward of trading up or down.

Hawthorn traded pick 27 and future second- and third-round selections mid-draft last year for Sydney’s No.18, which they used on Josh Weddle, who played 17 games in an impressive debut season. The success of that move might prompt clubs to be similarly bold on Monday and Tuesday.

But they don’t always work out. Carlton infamously traded their 2019 first-round selection to Adelaide for the Crows’ No.19 in 2018, which they used on Liam Stocker, whom then-list boss Stephen Silvagni rated very highly. The Blues were not only betting on Stocker’s talent but themselves being better the next season.

Unfortunately for Carlton, they finished 16th in 2019, and eventually delisted Stocker after 28 games across four years. He has since reunited with Silvagni at St Kilda.

It’s academic

Then there’s the academy element. The Swans, Giants, Suns and Lions can match any opposition bid on one of their northern academy players, who train in those respective clubs’ programs from a young age in the hope of graduating to the AFL list.

The 14 non-northern clubs have Next Generation Academies – for players with an Indigenous or multicultural background who are from an AFL-nominated zone allocated to that team.

When a rival club attempts to draft an academy player, the team that footballer is attached to has the right to match the bid based on an AFL formula, whereby a descending points value is attributed to each draft selection.

For example, pick one is worth 3000 points, and pick 12 is 1268 – right down to No.73 being valued at only nine points. Any selection from 74 onwards carries no points.

Clubs wishing to match an academy bid must do so with a collection of picks that equals the selection, in points value, that bid came at. The complication is that clubs receive a 20 per cent points discount on academy players who receive a first-round bid, and a fixed 197 points (about what pick 56 is worth) off any player after that.

Nick Blakey was at the centre of a genius live draft trade in 2018.Credit: AFL Photos

Part of the rule is the matching club needs to use its picks directly after when the bid was made, which is why Sydney’s 2018 trades with West Coast were genius. The Swans’ arrangement with the Eagles that enabled them to secure then-academy prospect Nick Blakey at a bargain rate was a much-talked-about live trade.

Sydney knew they would match a bid on Blakey somewhere in the first round, so they teed up two trades with the Eagles pre-draft.

First, the Swans traded their second-rounder in 2018 before the Giants bid on Blakey at No.10, which meant they were able to collate later selections to match the bid. After the bid was matched, they completed a second deal with West Coast that handed that original second-round selection right back to them.

There will be a strong academy flavour again in next week’s draft, just as there was in that aforementioned 2020 edition, when academy prospects Jamarra Ugle-Hagan (No.1), Braeden Campbell (5), Lachie Jones (16), Reef McInnes (23) and Blake Coleman (24) received first-round bids – all of which were matched.

Jamarra Ugle-Hagan was the No.1 pick as an academy prospect in 2020.Credit: AFL Photos

No more loophole

After Sydney’s 2018 move, the AFL swiftly shut that loophole, preventing clubs from following the Swans’ example. It is the same bidding process for father-son prospects.

And though clubs used to be able to match any bid on a Next Generation Academy player, just like the northern academies, the AFL changed the rule. Clubs can still match bids, but only from pick 40 onwards.

Back to this year’s draft. Gold Coast will match four opposition bids on academy prospects next week, with at least three of them set to come in the first round. Father-son duo Jordan Croft (tied to Western Bulldogs) and Will McCabe (Hawthorn) are also likely first-round draftees.

However, North Melbourne (Ryley Sanders), West Coast (Lance Collard), Hawthorn (Tew Jiath, brother of Changkuoth), Fremantle (Mitch Edwards) and the Bulldogs (Luamon Lual) are set to miss out on NGA players because of that rule change.

The first domino

There is a popular top 10, which includes, in no particular order: Reid, Walter, McKercher, Duursma, Watson, Sanders, Nate Caddy, Curtin, Ethan Read and Connor O’Sullivan, although bolters Caleb Windsor and James Leake are threatening to break in.

Colby McKercher is one of the best prospects in this year’s draft class.Credit: AFL Photos

All it would take is for one club to select Windsor or Leake with a top-10 pick, or make an earlier-than-expected bid on someone such as Gold Coast-bound midfielder Jake Rogers, for everything to change.

The Suns accumulated a suite of selections in the trade period in preparation for the worst-case scenario with their academy young guns.

After the top 10 or 12 selections, recruiters will tell you there are fewer genuinely safe picks than usual, and clubs may resort to punting on unproven upside. It’s going to be a fascinating draft.

The Age’s top 40

As published at the end of October:

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