Every club has question marks heading into the new season. Some just have more than others and others are more concerning than some. We take a look at the burning questions facing every club on the eve of the 2018 pre-season.
'Ruthless' has never been a term attached to the Crows.
Sure they play a nice brand of football, exciting in fact – especially at home when the goals tend to flow like wine at a catholic school cabaret - but can it be tinged with an element of foot-on-throat when things aren’t going exactly according to script?
Pressure is on Josh Jenkins and Taylor Walker to stand up when the chips are down, while Jake Lever’s absence will force a reshuffle down back.
Can Kyle Hartigan or Alex Keath successfully fill the void? Added pressure down back centres on the absence of Brodie Smith while he rehabs from ACL surgery.
Wheel looks to be slowly turning under coach Chris Fagan despite Josh Schache’s defection, and while midfield and defence look relatively set, the make-up of the forwardline is anyone’s guess. Eric Hipwood and recruit Charlie Cameron are locks but beyond that it’s as open as a hippy’s front door.
Josh Walker isn’t the answer while Jonathan Freeman and Michael Close were delisted.
Only three players topped 20 goals in 2017, and two of those – Dayne Zorko and Dayne Beams – play midfield. The other was Hipwood with 30. Given the departures the Lions are only going to get younger in the front half of the ground.
As exciting as the young generation looks the issue for the Blues will be finding steady performers in the 25-28 age bracket that can take up sufficient slack left by the up and down nature of young player’s performances.
Bar Liam Jones and Sam Docherty (24) the remainder of the top 10 from this year’s best and fairest were 28-plus (Matthew Wright turns 28 in December), or youngsters like Charlie Curnow and Patrick Cripps.
After a great first-year under Brendon Bolton, 2017 was something of a honeymoon period, but 2018 shapes as a year where another six-win season wouldn’t be tolerated.
Certainly the expectation isn’t finals, but at the very least eight wins has to be the benchmark.
Can the spine perform and who plays where? Some have suggested Darcy Moore should play at centre half back while Ben Reid is 11 years into his career and still doesn’t have a permanent home. Mason Cox has to make it as a forward because he’s not getting a game ahead of Brodie Grundy. Cox has promise and now has the experience to deliver more.
Or do the Pies look to emulate the Tigers and run a small, pressure-orientated forward package containing Jamie Elliott, Alex Fasolo, Travis Varcoe, Will Hoskin-Elliott and others.
On face value certainly appears better equipped to give it a try than attempt to fashion a more traditional set-up.
Steadily assembling a list capable of challenging but the weakness, on paper anyway, appears to be contested ball winners through the midfield.
As prolific as the likes of Dyson Heppell, Zach Merrett, Darcy Parish, David Zaharakis and Brendon Goddard are, none is in the mould of a powerhouse bull capable of being a four-quarter battering ram.
Essendon was at its best last season in free-flowing games where contested ball winning wasn’t a decisive factor.
Interestingly, while active in trade week to secure Devon Smith, Jake Stringer and Adam Saad, none of the trio addressed the midfield issue despite Stringer and Smith expressing interest in spending more time in the middle of the ground.
It’s been somewhat forgotten by many outside the Fremantle bubble but the side’s end to 2017 was as alarming as seven-week stretch in the club’s history.
The Dockers lost six of the last seven matches by an average of 53 points, including back-to-back 104-point maulings by Sydney and Richmond. A sustained period of extreme losses like that strike at the heart of player-coach relationship. After six years at the helm does Ross Lyon still have his players?
Given the youth on the list there are holes everywhere that require filling. Who plays key defensive post? Can Cam McCarthy lift his output up forward? In the midfield can anyone not named Nat Fyfe, Lachie Neale, Brad or Stephen Hill step-up? Losing Lachie Weller hurt. Rebounding defenders are also an issue.
As much as a midfield containing Patrick Dangerfield, Joel Selwood and Gary Ablett has more than a nice ring to it, the practicalities and functionalities of the trio working both ways will be crucial given the Cats’ achilles heel under Chris Scott has been getting opened up by elite opposition on big stages.
Dangerfield, Selwood and Ablett – as well as Mitch Duncan - are attack first players who hunt the footy. Defending is not instinctive. Can the coaching staff fashion a mix that offers an element of defence?
Tom Lonergan’s absence should not be underestimated. The retired full back wasn’t a star, but filling his shoes is a considerable challenge given no one on the Cats’ list has ever played as a permanent last-line defender.
Tom Lynch’s signature. If the Suns can’t get its co-captain to recommit beyond 2018, the media circus set to surround a return to Melbourne could derail Stewart Dew’s coaching reign before it even starts.
One player doesn’t make a club, but given the delicate nature of the franchise right now you could argue Lynch is an exception to that rule.
Wins and losses are almost irrelevant when sat beside the contract status of the key forward.
GREATER WESTERN SYDNEY
On paper there is no obvious weakness bar the ruck given the retirement of Shane Mumford. Can Rory Lobb make the leap?
The 207cm Giant has only ever pinch-hit in the ruck while looking more confortable roaming around up forward. Dawson Simpson is the next option, and while honest, it’d be a stretch to suggest he could lead the team to the promised land. Veteran duo Ryan Griffen and Brett Deledio enter 2018 under pressure to perform. Both are being paid handsomely but have delivered little.
Jeremy Cameron is another in the spotlight. Was diabolical in the 2016 preliminary final (5 disposals) and missed six of the final 10 games, including two finals, in 2017 with a hamstring injury. Needs to fire when the side needs him most.
With premierships banked the Hawks are in transition and for the first time in years enter a season with more questions than answers.
Does a spine containing Kaiden Brand, Jarryd Roughead, James Frawley and Tim O’Brien have enough juice? Brand stepped up last season but will need to do so again while O’Brien is a talent but is yet to put together a 22-game season despite five years at the club. The graph, however, is trending in the right direction after he played 16 games last season.
Many of the midfield concerns could be answered by Jaeger O’Meara. Off-setting that is there are huge concerns on the former Suns’ ability to play-out a full season. Has played six games in three years.
After the Demons 2017 late-season implosion the mental toughness and fortitude is at the forefront of questions confronting a club that has not played finals since 2006.
Trading away Jack Watts was something of a statement, although not sure the club has factored in the negative press that came with it. Will last season’s disappointment alter the mental state and create a hard-nosed outfit capable of fleshing out wins in a myriad of ways?
Part of the equation centres on the forwardline’s mix and functionality. With Jake Lever on board can Tom McDonald and Jesse Hogan form a dynamic duo? Where does that leave Cam Pedersen given coach Simon Goodwin will be keen to hand Sam Weideman playing time.
The other move that has fans salivating is Christian Petracca into the midfield. Can the young powerhouse become a Dustin Martin-style match-winner? Given his talent its appears only a matter of time but how quickly it happens will be critical to the Dees next season.
Having lost so much experience in recent years, how quickly will the Roos batch of youngster come on. Can Jy Simpkin make himself a regular? Does Luke McDonald take the next step after a promising 2017? Have Declan Mountford, Ryan Clarke and Trent Dumont got what it takes to make a permanent midfield role their own?
Can Mason Wood's and Jarrad Waite's bodies hold together for long enough to provide Ben Brown with some genuine support in attack? The big Tasmanian was left to carry the can on his lonesome last year and although he had a surperb year, he needs help.
Both recruited from rival clubs without playing a single senior game, can Paul Ahern – who has been desperately unlucky with injuries – and Alex Morgan break into the senior lineup and add some much needed speed and class?
Meeting expectation in the wake of a list top-up like the game has never seen.
What comes with that is perceived pressure, on players and coaches, to perform.
Not since the early 2000s has the Power entered a season full cognisant that a top four finish is the minimum requirement. The additions of Steven Motlop and Jack Watts bolster an already stacked forward set-up featuring Charlie Dixon, Robbie Gray, Chad Wingard and Justin Westhoff, but the issues could be at the other end of the ground. Tom Clurey (193cm) and Jack Hombsch (194cm) are undersized key backs in a league boasting a plethora of 198-200cm gorillas.
Port is likely to kick enough goals but can they stop enough of them at the other end?
Can Tigers maintain the rage?
Young sides who’ve won flags in recent years – Geelong in 2007, Hawthorn in 2008, Collingwood in 2010 and Western Bulldogs in 2016 had varying degrees of success the following season but the one theme was that none went back-to-back. In fact the Hawks and Dogs whiffed on finals all together.
Can the Tigers rise to the mental challenge of backing up in the face of being hunted like the side has not been hunted since the early 1980s?
And can that pressure-packed small forwardline work like it did in 2017 given every side will go to school in it. It will be remembered that Hawthorn in 2009 and to a lesser extent Collingwood in 2011 both failed to replicate their pressure a year after winning premierships.
It’s been well documented the Saints lack class across the board so who can elevate into that category shapes as critical. Seb Ross and Jack Billings are the players coach Alan Richardson will be challenging to make the leap. Both have shown glimpses – Ross won this year’s best and fairest – but have not done it consistently enough.
Kicking more goals is a key for Ross who has kicked 13 from 81 career matches. He kicked five in 2017. For Billings its fitness and durability to play as a permanent AFL midfielder.
If at least one of the pair doesn’t join Jack Steven as a bona fide A-grader its hard to see the Saints troubling some of the game’s better units on a regular basis.
Up forward life without Nick Riewoldt will be interesting. Paddy McCartin is the man with the target on his back while Josh Bruce comes off a disappointing season.
Defensively the Swans still have a reliance of undersized duo Heath Grundy and Dane Rampe. Grundy turns 32 in June and Rampe (188cm) is a jet but would be so much better if wasn’t forced to wrestle infinitely bigger players on a weekly basis.
Salary cap restrictions in wake of monster deals for Lance Franklin and Kurt Tippett hamstrung attempts to bolster key defensive stocks during trade week.
Elsewhere, if Tom Papley spends more time through midfield, do they have enough craft when the ball hits the deck inside attacking 50 to make the most of their opportunities?
Two years on from playing in a Grand Final Wet Coast has a list in flux. It lost 12 players to retirement or delisting, including big names Sam Mitchell, Matt Priddis and Drew Petrie, as well as Sharrod Wellingham and Josh Hill. Given some played key roles this season they will need to be replaced.
Key to that will be fashioning a workable midfield given the knock on the Eagles has been pace and size in the middle of the ground. Can Liam Duggan, Dom Sheed, Chris Masten, Mark Hutchings and Andrew Gaff survive together given none boast top-end speed.
Key to it all could be the successful return from injury of star ruck Nic Naitanui. It might be best for Eagle fans to lower their expectations and be surprised that up the stakes and gnashing teeth. Naitanui is likely to need time.
Who are the real Bulldogs? The side that cut a swathe through opponents for four weeks to win the 2016 premiership or the team that took one step forward and two steps back on a recurring three-week cycle in 2017. Right now many are suggesting the latter.
Up forward how the side sets up remains a mystery. What impact can recruit Josh Schache have, and can he play alongside Jack Redpath? Despite a starring role in the 2016 Grand Final Tom Boyd looks better up forward but it’s hard to see the trio playing together. In fact, its almost impossible given the lack of mobility. That means Boyd plays ruck. Does he have the aggression to successfully do so on a weekly basis? If so Jordan Roughead can return to bolster a defence that lacked size in 2017. Will Marcus Adams come on?
And who of the players that failed to replicate 2016 form can return to it in 2018?