AFL 2021 Season Preview: Essendon

Essendon have hit the draft hard with three first-round picks in Zach Reid (L), Archie Perkins (M) and Nik Cox (R). How will they impact their 2021 season? Photo: Essendon FC.

The departure of big name players and the arrival of young talent in spades leaves the Bombers and new head coach Ben Rutten in a no-mans land of expectations. What can we expect from the Tullamarine residents in 2021?

Last year:

13th. 6 wins, 1 draw, 10 losses, 79.2%

Track watch:

Luckily for the perennially under-sized Bombers, up and coming ruckman Sam Draper and young key forward Harrison Jones have received plenty of pre-season attention. 

The addition of retiree Tom Bellchambers to the coaching line up has only benefitted Draper’s development as one of the only ruck options left at the club, alongside fellow youngster Nick Bryan and former Blue Andrew Phillips.

Number eight draft pick Nik Cox has been showing off his athleticism and endurance despite his 200cm frame, winning the 2km time trial ahead of Kyle Langford.

Jye Caldwell’s skills with the footy have taken another leap since making the move from GWS, while Cale Hooker has notably trimmed down.

Nik Cox has been playing forward, back and in the midfield in match simulation drills. Photo: https://www.essendonfc.com.au/

What to look forward to:

The development of the brigade of young players will be front and centre at the minds of both Ben Rutten and Bombers fans. 

Expect early season debuts from draftees Archie Perkins and Nik Cox, while the new faces from the trade table Peter Wright, Nick Hind and Jye Caldwell will help to create a very new look Essendon team.

The continued development of young stars Andrew McGrath as an inside midfielder and Jordan Ridley down back will bring joy to Dons fans even if the wins aren’t coming.

It’s a big year for:

Jake Stringer has still got plenty to prove in his time at the Bombers, arriving at the end of 2017 and still having failed to get back to his best form.

It’s not entirely Stringer’s fault, given the amount of injury setbacks that have hampered his form and ability to get consistency in his game.

He managed just 10 games in 2020 with a syndesmosis injury. An Achilles injury scare at training has question marks over his fitness for round one.

At this best, Stringer is a match winning forward. He still hasn’t beaten his All-Australian 2015 year at the Bulldogs, kicking 56 goals and averaging 14 disposals and three inside 50s.

While Stringer lead the Bombers goal kicking tally in both 2018 and 2019, he needs to put together a full year to prove that he can be an elite player of the competition if everything goes right for him.

His remarkable goal sense and x-factor will be vital to helping the development of the young forwards around him.

Biggest unanswered question:

The departure of both Adam Saad and Conor McKenna will change the way the Bombers rebound from the backline more than a lack of an experienced key forward will impact the forward line, given Joe Daniher only played 15 games in red and black after 2017.

The breakneck speed that the two small defenders added to the best 22 can’t be understated.

Small forward Ned Cahill is being trialled as a small defender in match simulation, while Nick Hind has been earmarked for a spot on the half-back flank.

While the two have pace to burn, both being played out of their natural position will take some time and adjustment from the coaching staff.

Is Nick Hind the answer to the Bombers need for backline pace? Photo: https://www.essendonfc.com.au/

Coach pressure index:

Low to Medium

No Essendon head coach is ever without mild pressure, and Rutten will have more than a few critics if too much goes wrong for the rebuilding side. However, the year will be much less about wins and more about development.

A clear and identifiable game plan will be the pass mark for Rutten, with expectations following the coaching succession at the forefront for both Essendon fans and media.

Internally, the only goals would have to be getting game time into the young core, including players who missed through either injury or lack of opportunity such as Lachlan Johnson and Dylan Clarke.

Ins:

Jye Caldwell (GWS Giants), Peter Wright (Gold Coast Suns), Nick Hind (St. Kilda), Nik Cox (Northern Knights), Archie Perkins (Sandringham Dragons), Zach Reid (Gippsland Power), Josh Eyre (Essendon NGA), Cody Brand (Essendon NGA)

Outs:

Conor McKenna (retired), Tom Bellchambers (retired), Joe Daniher (Brisbane Lions), Adam Saad (Carlton), Orazio Fantasia (Port Adelaide). Shaun McKernan (delisted, St. Kilda), Mitch Hibberd (delisted), Kobe Mutch (delisted), Josh Begley (delisted), Noah Gown (delisted), Jacob Townsend (delisted, Gold Coast Suns), Henry Crauford (delisted)

Predicted Round 1 lineup:

FB: Jordan Ridley – Brandon Zerk-Thatcher – Mason Redman

HB: Nick Hind – Cale Hooker – Dyson Heppell

C: Zach Merrett – Dylan Shiel – Kyle Langford

HF: Archie Perkins – Harrison Jones – Will Snelling

FF: Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti – Peter Wright – Devon Smith

FOLL: Sam Draper – Andrew McGrath – Darcy Parish

I/C: Brayden Ham – James Stewart – Jye Caldwell – Matt Guelfi

Ladder range:

14th-18th

There’s so many unknowns in key positions for this Bombers team that wins should not be the benchmark for a successful 2021 season. With a myriad of new players in new roles, Rutten will be expected to galvanise the group and create a consistent Essendon team that can be seriously challenging for a flag in the next three to four years.

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