Essendon Season Preview 2017: The only way is up

Written by Harry Doyle (@thefootysocial) on 25 March 2017   

One of the biggest question marks for football in 2017: How will the Bombers go? So many unknowns leading into the year. How will the returning players fare? Who is in the best 22? Will John Worsfold implement a successful ball movement plan to launch them into a high scoring team? With the club unleashing fresh new talent last year, and with the addition of experienced players, surely the only way is up.

Dyson Heppell elected by his peers as the new captain for the Bombers will lead the charge with a more determined squad than ever. The young players who held their head up high last year will want to prove they aren't pushovers, internally and externally. The experienced campaigners will want to prove to the football community that they can play football and be successful. This can only be a great thing for the Bombers; a playing list with depth which the club has been attempting to create over the last 10 years. The competitiveness for positions and to solely focus on football will boost this team's culture enormously. Aaron Francis, Conor McKenna, and Jake Long received a taste of top league football last year, only urging themselves to build on form and cause headaches for coaching staff on selection day. The returning players Ben Howlett, Heath Hocking, and Tom Bellchambers find themselves competing for spots against recent additions Darcy Parish, James Kelly, and James Stewart. This year's Bombers outfit will certainly have no players with gifted games.

John Worsfold (Woosha) has the toughest gig of all. A challenge in which he will enjoy, selecting his fittest and best 22 men to face the season. Plenty of ingredients to play around with in Woosha's hand this year, which will be exciting for fans as he was forced to play a defensive style with limited time in 2016. The JLT series provided glimpses of Woosha’s tricks, a quarter here and a half there. It wasn't consistent but it is match practice after all. And there were plenty of new teammates still learning each other's craft in match conditions. But it was genuinely exciting, this was a completely new team yet everyone felt so familiar. Old timers in Jobe Watson and Brent Stanton were offloading to the likes of Parish and Mcdonald-Tipungwuti then seeing Hartley and Hurley lining up in defensive 50 together. These name combinations were all fresh for the broadcasters. And now we see how Woosha will structure his pieces and form them. Faster ball movement is definitely the most noticeable key change thus far at Essendon. The footy world will be interested in their progress.

But where is the destination? Just to win more games than last year? Harassing the top 8? Are they a finalist team? Are they better than that? Premiership? Unlikely. There has been no team that has experienced the chaos that these guys have, so how are we meant to predict their fate? Look at the fans and expert ladder predictions. The Bombers are all over the place. All I know is there is no ceiling for these guys. The Bombers are flying up! They are creating their own destinies in 2017: this Essendon journey shouldn't be missed. 

Player Preview

#1 – Andrew McGrath

Essendon's first-ever #1 draft pick. Don't expect him to be playing 22 games this year though. The speedy half-back flanker will be eased into his first season according the John Worsfold. He'll have good games definitely as his disposal efficiency is elite and the coach will love using his abilities down in the back half, but there is a heap of personnel in that driving half back position. Someone has to miss out!

#2 – Tom Bellchambers

A good headache for Essendon's team. If fit and that's a big IF, does he take over Leuenberger as primary ruckman? Not yet! It's been a long time since Bellchambers has Don the Sash: he only managed 18 games for seasons 2014 & 2015. Bellchambers strength as a ruckman is to slide forward and stretch the opposition's defense. He looked invincible against Port Adelaide back in 2013 with a 5 goal haul. We could see that more, especially with Daniher and Hooker lurking down in the forward 50, this could be a serious weapon if he plays alongside them. Would like to see Belly dominate VFL and string games together first, but with Essendon's ruck stocks very slim. He will likely get the call up throughout the season.

#3 – Darcy Parish

How good is this kid!? 2016 saw Parish thrown in the deep end, played 20 games right in the middle and averaged over 20 disposals. Impressive figures for a first year player, now with bigger bodies surrounding him, expect him to be in and out of the congestion. We should be able to see the U18s Parish come through with a fast attack on the loose ball and surging away from a pack with more goals on his tally! That's what made him a very attractive early pick. Keep an eye on this one, next big thing for the bombers in the making.

#4 – Jobe Watson

The heart and soul of the Essendon Football Club, you would not have seen anything but a smile on everyone’s face when Jobe sent out that famous tweet announcing his return to football. Will we see Jobe play predominately forward or mid? Easily the midfield for me. He creates so many plays with his risky handballs and decision making, he will open the fast runners up on his side like Colyer and McDonald-Tipungwuti (Walla). Jobe has slimmed down to his 2012 midfield body, which hopefully means he isn't as injury prone this season. Players love playing with and for Jobe: if he plays a full season special things will happen. Watch out footy world, Jobe is back!

#5 – Brent Stanton

The hard-running midfielder seems to have a change in position this year. He trained with the backline and is looking to be one of their main distributors, very similar to the switch of Matthew Boyd from the Bulldogs. Will be released on a wing occasionally but wouldn't be shocked to see him take on the tagging role. Stanton has a huge tank and exceptional work rate, expect to see him everywhere when the pressure builds on the Bombers backline.

#6 – Joe Daniher

Joe Daniher is the most important player at Essendon, (drop the mic). Leading goal kicker for the club for a number of years now and a runner-up best and fairest.  This is the year, now receiving support from fellow small forwards and the return of Cale Hooker and new recruit James Stewart. No longer will he be double, triple tagged. Expect this man to shine as soon he will be recognized as a top echelon forward of the competition. As Daniher stands over 2 meters tall and with his extended arm reach, he is almost unbeatable in the air. Nightmare material for defenders. With experienced midfielders returning, you would think the ball delivery inside 50 and to Daniher will rise, increasing the goal tally. There will be many times he'll be able to punish opposition defenses, only IF those balls are sailing through the middle posts, and that’s more easily said than done. Time will tell to see if the set shot accuracy will improve. The left foot and right foot snaps might be his new trademark set shot. I trust Joe has been training on this in the offseason. Even if his set shot accuracy does not improve from last season, would not be surprised to see Daniher kick 60 plus goals this season. Big year ahead.

#7 – Zac Merrett

I love this guy. He is a ball magnet, rarely beaten in tackles and uses the ball beautifully. He reminds me of Gary Ablett Jnr and he is only 21 years old! And yes, I just compared him to Gary. John Worsfold will plonk him right on the ball every game and knows he'll be one of Essendon's highest ball gatherers. 2016 Best and Fairest Winner, 19 Votes in Brownlow and now elevated to Vice-Captain. Looking forward to Merrett's season: his best footy is ahead.

#8 – Martin Gleeson

Big year for Marty Gleeson coming up! He seems to be forgotten or left out in a lot of people's best 22. This guy has played 42 games the last couple of seasons. He was one of the victims of the ‘Keeping the ball from the opposition' play last year, and the coach would know that. Gleeson will benefit hugely from a more aggressive style of ball movement. He is agile, a precise kick, and a great intercept mark. The craft of a damaging backman, and will have protection from bigger bodies Ambrose, Hartley and Hurley. Time to shine Marty!

#9 – Brendan Goddard

Last year's stand in Captain, will continue to run across the ground and gather the troops. Where will Woosha play him though? Half back looks comforting for him, but the Dons need good executioners entering the forward 50. The forwards would want to be receiving the end of Goddard’s kicks. I'm sure he'll be playing every position this year, but has his versatility become a weakness? I don't think he has a prime position entering 2017. Which would dampen his output in team performances.

#10 – Aaron Francis

Anyone see the VFL finals last year? What a treat! Huge bombs, smashing packs, what we want to see! Would be a damaging forward if he can keep fit. When Francis ticks all the boxes for AFL football and plays a chunk of games, the ‘Rising Star' award is a very good chance to be his. Playing forward will leave him with games with minimum touches, but it's all patience at the moment with Francis. Staying on the park is priority right now, his football abilities will come naturally.

#11 - David Zaharakis

Zaharakis would be the first player to put his hand up and say he loves having his teammate's back. 2016 saw Zaharakis enter the season being the primary midfielder plus copping the primary tag. Now relinquished from that role, we will see him play outside midfield gathering the ball instead of hunting it on the inside. Probably see that trademark Zaharakis goal a lot more. Essendon fans know what I'm talking about.

#12 - Mark Baguley

When fans write their best 22, Baguley is normally the first man that is penciled straight away in the back pocket. Will always take the best small forwards. Was stand-in vice-captain last year, shows how much respect he's earned from his peers. Reliable, strong, always gives 200%. Fills the role perfectly.

#13 – Orazio Fantasia

Essendon has found a small forward, he's a ripper as well. Kicked 29 goals last year from his 15 games playing forward. If Fantasia goes quiet, Worsfold can happily throw him on the back flank for some speed and flare and knows he will deliver. There's huge hype for Orazio this year and is strongly becoming a fan favourite at the club. Would be aiming for 40 + goals this season.

#14 – Jordan Ridley

Jordan was picked up at #22 in the draft last year, shares similar attributes to Grant Birchall from Hawthorn. Unfortunately for Jordan, he will be sitting out majority of the year with a stress fracture. Hopefully will see him in the VFL at later season. All talk is positive for this man's career.

#15 – Josh Green

A handy recruit for the Bombers at no cost. Coming down from Brisbane, Josh Green will feature heavily in the forward line already providing glimpses of brilliance in the JLT series. Pressure turnovers will be his key feature and snagging a couple of goals. Green staying fit and in form will add another string to Essendon's forward line. He's a proven goal kicker and Bombers don't have many of them.

#16 – Josh Begley

Huge unit who is known for his goal sense and natural awareness in the 50. Displayed a 4 goal haul in the JLT series against Gold Coast. Might get a debut game this year when the right team matchup comes around. Long term prospect.

#17- James Stewart

Traded in from the Giants after not being able to surpass the GWS forward stocks. Great set of hands and good set shot, needs to show the team why he should be a permanent player in the 22. A solid pick for backing up Joe Daniher. He's a tall figure, good chance if selected he'll be pinch-hitting in the ruck. Needs to get games under his belt to bring the best out of him.

#18 – Michael Hurley

Lock him in at Centre-Half Back. After a year out, he doesn't look out of touch. Hurley will continue to take on the best oppositions forward but also provide a strong rebound out of defense. He will want achieve that All-Australian status he earned in 2015. Could be the best defender in the competition after Alex Rance. A huge key to Essendon's success.

#19 – Kobe Mutch

Essendon supporter growing up, young Kobe impressed in intra-club matches. A pure midfielder who seems to be a ball magnet, hopefully we see this replicated in VFL and onwards. As his body grows, the more opportunities he will get at senior level.

#20 – Jackson Merrett

Hopefully a career saving move for Jackson, it seems Mark Harvey is pushing him to be a small defender as his form as a forward has faded. Struggled to hold a spot in a depleted team last year. Needs a confident boost. Hopefully his defensive work plays out and earns him some possessions. Not in the best squad right now, but if he dominates VFL, he'll be knocking the door on selection night.

#21 – Dyson Heppell

The captain! A natural leader, who rarely plays a bad game. Has been switched on since his debut back in 2011. Now has the opportunity to showcase his leadership. A year out will only fuel Heppell's determination for success. He carried the midfield in late 2015 without Watson, Myers, Hocking, and a fit ruckman and still gathered high numbers across the statistician's board. The return of these players and emergence of young guns Merrett and Parish will enhance Heppell's performance. Happy for him to be the face of the club.

#22 – Matthew Leuenberger

The big man in the middle. Got through most of the 2016 season with 20 games, improved as the season went along. Once again Leuenberger will have to adjust to new players at his feet this season, as when these relationships are established his work will blossom. May also be sharing ruck duties with fellow big man Tom Bellchambers depending on John Worsfold’s overall plan of attack. Unfortunately did a hamstring in the JLT, the team desperately needs this man fit for 2017. Ruck stocks are running very slim.

#23 – David Myers

Played just over a half of football in 2015. The left foot specialist returns to the club, only to get a finger injury at the wrong end of pre-season. This man's luck didn't get better. Still think he is in the best 22 when at full fitness. His long kick is so potent against the enemy. Will likely attend centre square bounces and have the ball offloaded to him for a clearance. He doesn't mind a goal from outside 50 either. Absolute bonus for the Bombers if he plays.

#24 – Craig Bird

Good contested ball player, loves a tackle, and the pressure is always there. Didn't play every game last year which is concerning. Hard to place where Bird's place is in the team. Plays a very similar role to Ben Howlett, if not, identical. Feel like they're competing against each other for spots. Woosha was very keen on him arriving in the red and black in late 2015. Do greater plans lay ahead for Bird?

#25 – Alex Morgan

Morgan worked extremely hard in the offseason but keeps finding himself in the rehabilitation section of the hangar. Morgan has super speed and plays predominately off half-back, will desperately want to get on the park this year.

#26 – Cale Hooker

One of the best swingmen in the competition. Looks set to be the main forward with Joe Daniher. Hooker kicked 21.21 in the second half of the 2015 season, proving he's a valuable target in front half. One-on-one battles in the air are Hooker's forte rarely beaten and can pluck many contested marks in a game. Expect to see Hooker float as the spare man in the back half at the end of a quarter and take an intercept mark, reminding us of his attributes that were recognized by the All-Australian selectors in 2014. A vital cog of the Essendon line-up.

#27 – Mason Redman

Redman played 3 games in the red and black last year, and will be looking to build on those games in total. He plays an aggressive flashy half forward role and looked okay in the JLT series. He doesn't mind a no-argue which makes him dangerous in the forward half. Spots are tight though and I feel Redman has been overtaken in preference at the moment. Has to really put the pedal to the floor in the VFL to dictate his selection.

#28 – Mitch Brown

Essendon’s selection to pick up Mitch Brown paid off last year, played an enormous role in the forward half with Daniher, but found his best position in the club as an intercept marker in the backline at late season. Unsure if he has cemented a spot in the best line up with return of Hooker and Hurley. His figures of 18 marks against Geelong in round 20 were impressive and are hard to ignore. Brown will be competing against fellow teammates Patrick Ambrose and Michael Hartley for a spot. Healthy competiveness for Brown, which might bring the best out of him.

#29 – Patrick Ambrose

Many fans would agree, Ambrose switch to full-back was a career saver for him. Thank you John Worsfold and Mark Harvey. Not only is this guy tough as nails, smashes opponents to ground, and holds them until they can't move, he has also had the best running times at the club for multiple seasons now. Ambrose can match anyone athletically in the competition and proved his defensive assets valuable by shutting down Jack Riewoldt in both clashes in 2016. Opponents would hate being matched to him and this almost locks him into the defensive structure for 2017.

#30 – Kyle Langford

Another young gun in the making for the Bombers. Langford looks set to have more midfield time this upcoming season, and will likely be rotated forward with the likes of Watson, Parish, Laverde, and Colyer. Showcased his talents against Carlton in the final hit out of the year with 3 goals and 9 marks, his best game for the club. Hopefully is a sign to come for 2017.

#32 – Travis Colyer

Gee, did Essendon miss Colyer's leg speed or what? Will be welcomed back with open arms by teammates and fans. Exciting time for Colyer, as this year he will have other pacemen beside him. Imagine the chain of handballs with players such as Fantasia, Green, and Mcdonald-Tipungwuti with Colyer, what a vision! Hopefully Colyer can stay on the park this year, if so expect to see him be the most prolific goal kicking midfielder for the club.

#33 – Jayden Laverde

I share the same vison for Laverde as I do for Kyle Langford. The difference is, Laverde has never had a full season of football and unfortunately isn't going to either in 2017. Ruled out with an ankle injury, hopefully he’ll be back mid-year. Will likely take the road with VFL when he returns to 100% fitness and might take some time to shove a teammate out of the midfield to gain a spot. Definitely, a handy option forward of centre and has provided the coaching staff glimpses of pure talent.

#34- Jake Long

Big name player at the club, Long debuted last year and was involved in a couple of wins. Played on the wing and provided the team with solid decision making and kicking efficiency. Still needs to bulk up in my eyes to be in the starting lineup of the Dons list. Another player that will tempt Worsfold to call his name on selection night. Expect Jake Long to be seen in the VFL, working in the midfield and enhancing his skill set.

#36 – Michael Hartley

Hartley was a rock for the Essendon backline last year with his fist preventing many possessions in his rival's hands. Hartley's forte was his 1 percenters, ending with 185 for the season and entering up high in the record books for the Bombers at seasons end. He is a great classic defender, and normally took the most damaging forwards of last season, like Buddy Franklin, Josh Kennedy, and Tex Walker. With the return of Hurley, we will likely see Hartley share opponents with his teammate, sometimes leaving Hartley with a second rate forward and potentially making his presence felt more in defensive 50.

#37 – Dylan Clarke

Picked up in the draft at 65, most felt that was a bargain after Clarke's U18 championship. Some experts rating him in the top 30 prospects for the year. Clarke is a strong hard-nut midfielder, who hunts the ball and smashes the footy on his boot. Didn't look out of place in the JLT series, and could be a potential smoky for an AFL debut later in the year. He has many leaders surrounding him at the club, which will help him learn the craft of an AFL footballer. Looking forward to his career.

#38 – Sam Draper

#1 rookie draft selection was Sam Draper, a ruckman from South Australia. Will spend time in the VFL developing his game. Injury prone ruckmen on Essendon's list might mean he has a slim chance of debuting, but Draper is a long term prospect and there will be no rush for an AFL debut this year.

#39 – Heath Hocking

Heath Hocking, a favourite player of mine. He provides much-needed grunt in the Dons midfield, has been used as a primary tagger before and would resume that role under John Worsfold. Has been one of Essendon's best tacklers for many years and has successfully shut down quality enemy runners. Hocking is a player that doesn't walk straight up into the best 22 this year and will need to prove that he is a worthy player that fits the game plan. Hocking not being the fastest player, might find himself on the wrong side of the magnet board throughout the year.

#40 – Ben Howlett

Great tackler, great marker and has kicked bags of goals in the past but I feel the year off for Howlett has jeopardized his position on the team. Consistency is a huge key for Howlett this year, competition for spots in the forward line might help him. A few players ahead of him at the moment, but he will play at stages. You do need a team of 30 to get through the season.

#41- Ben McNeice

McNeice recruited from the Essendon VFL in the rookie draft, and I feel if he was a ‘top up' player last year, he might be in talks for a defensive spot like Matt Dea is this year. But that's how footy works, got to take your chances and beat what's in front of you. McNeice is a great servant for the back line and if an Essendon injury massacre occurs, don't be surprised to see Ben get his named called out.

#43 – Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti

Well, what a story he was last year. Known as ‘Walla', and a huge cult hero figure for the club. Walla has found himself training and playing in the forward 50 for the year ahead. Expect immense chase downs and pressure acts, brilliant ball pickups, smooth evasions and freakish goals. This man can have his own highlights package at years end. If standards are met at Essendon under John Worsfold, Walla will have the freedom to tear games apart. Watch out!

#44 – Shaun McKernan

Just elevated off the rookie list, Mckernan will be aiming to become the backup ruckman plus third tall forward. Will play first few games as the solo ruckman. He's not a tall player compared to other ruck stocks but will provide the team and primarily his midfield second efforts on the ground ball and around stoppages, plus a sneaky goal. He's never capitalized his position in the team, maybe this is the year?

#45 – Conor McKenna

The Irishman flourished in 2016, elevating his status as a fast rebounding dash man from defense. McKenna stood out in a slow ball moving team with his carry, providing Worsfold a taste of what he is capable of in 2017 with more experience surrounding him. It may be another year of overall improvement for the Irishman but his pace will be needed in games and will demand a call-up on selection night.

#47- James Kelly

What a pick up for the Bombers! Kelly played as a loose halfback last year and picked up plenty of possessions. His body held up beautifully, managing to play most of the year and even surprising himself. Finished with runner-up best and fairest, James was so pleased he signed up for 2017. Now with a larger personnel of senior bodies at the club, Kelly's game time surely would be managed. We have seen James Kelly for many years now and coaches will know what they'll get from him. Will be a solid contributor for the Dons.

#49 – Matt Dea

Same as Kelly, another silver lining for the Bombers in 2016. Dea's versatility as a defender was super impressive which earned him a contract. His ability to play small or tall on the opposition's forward line was a fine attribute along with his intercept marking. With the departure of Michael Hibberd, Dea's door has opened for a possible lock in the Essendon back line. There is a queue for his position though, pressure is on. Will need to hit a certain amount of games to stay on the list as he is uncontracted at year's end.

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