21/04/2024
Jake Kelly Essendon

Jake Kelly is headed to Essendon via free agency. Photo: Adelaide Crows

Essendon has officially secured the services of unrestricted free agent Jake Kelly. Known for his lockdown prowess, will the 26-year-old slot into Ben Rutten's best 22 straight away?

Essendon has officially secured the services of unrestricted free agent Jake Kelly. Known for his lockdown prowess, will the 26-year-old slot into the Bombers’ best team straight away?

Taken in the 2014 rookie draft, Kelly has played 110 games for the Crows including the 2017 Grand Final. His no-fuss approach earned him the admiration of teammates and supporters, often blanketing opposing forwards out of contests.

With Essendon conceding the fifth-most goals per game in the competiton, Jake Kelly is primed to shore up its defensive unit.

Is Jake Kelly in Essendon’s best team? The tall plays small

At 190 centimetres, Jake Kelly slots in-between Jordan Ridley (192cm) and Dyson Heppell (189cm) down back for Essendon. His defensive assignments are often the most dangerous small forward of the opposition.

Defensive one-on-one contests are where Kelly thrives. In 2021 he lost just 16.9 per cent of his 3.3 one-on-ones per game, a mark that stands him in the company of All-Australians Aliir Aliir (16.8 per cent lost) and Tom Stewart (19.4 per cent lost).

One of the best small defenders in the competition was Brandon Starcevich. The Lions’ lockdown back was involved in 1.8 defensive one-on-ones per game, and lost 22.7 per cent of them. In 1.5 less one-on-one situations per game than Kelly, Starcevich lost 5.8 per cent more of his contests.

The Dons now have a player they are comfortable putting on the last line of defensive against the opposition’s most dangerous small to medium forwards. That job was often given to Ridley or Mason Redman, which limited their intercepting prowess and score launches respectively.

In his 20 games in 2021 Kelly also recorded 6.3 intercept possessions, ranked elite by AFL Stats Pro. He adds an elite three spoils, 3.7 one-percenters and under one free kick giveaway per game.

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In the Bombers’ elimination final clash with the Dogs, it was small forward Cody Weightman who broke the game open with four goals, all stemming from free kicks. In Round 1 Dylan Moore produced a quick-fire three goals to start the Hawks’ comeback, while Tom Papley’s four goals got the Swans over the line in Round 21.

Ben Rutten can now put his faith in Kelly to take on those assignments in 2022.

He isn’t the player you want biting off the corridor kick out of defence, but he knows that better than anyone else. His outstanding disposal efficiency of 83.8 per cent in 2021 reflects a defender that knows his limitations and finds a teammate who can use the ball.

The Dons already have elite ball users coming out of defence in Jordan Ridley (88.1 per cent) and Mason Redman (82.4 per cent), with Heppell’s poise and Nick Hind’s dash making for a daring backline that helped the Dons kick the fifth-most goals per game last season.

Is Jake Kelly in Essendon’s best team?

The Bombers wheeled out a new-look back seven in 2021. Jayden Laverde and James Stewart swapped ends for the first time in their careers, Nick Hind took up a half-back role after years in St Kilda’s forward line, while skipper Dyson Heppell shifted back to the position that won him the 2011 Rising Star.

The only constant of previous years was 2020 Crichton Medallist Jordan Ridley. Mason Redman bounced back in a big way, while the seventh piece of this mix was shared between Aaron Francis, Marty Gleeson and Tom Cutler at various stages.

Those first six are expected to return to the backline in 2021, with 2020 top-10 selection Zach Reid potentially heaping pressure on Stewart’s place with a strong pre-season. Francis played the second half of the season up forward in a possible sign of things to come, while Gleeson’s place on the 2022 list is still an unknown.

Both Jake Kelly and Tom Cutler offer Essendon different things as players.

The edge goes to Kelly in his capacity to lock down the opposition’s best small forward, which is an area of improvement for the Bombers under Rutten. Cutler showed flashes of offensive ability with his raking boot, but a freed up Redman and Hind can spearhead the offence of Essendon’s defensive 50 with the trust of Kelly behind them.

With Weightman’s elimination final exploits fresh in the minds of everyone at Essendon, Kelly is in a good position to claim a place in the Bombers’ best 22 to begin 2022.

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