Why the AFL draft isn't working, writes Jake Niall

Why the AFL draft isn’t working, writes Jake Niall

This time 12 months ago, North Melbourne was very happy to have Jason Horne-Francis in the first pick. Today, he’s a Port Adelaide player, running out of Arden Street despite his contract.

On Monday and Tuesday night, experts will announce that certain clubs are «doing really well» and improving their roster with sensible choices.

Mitch Szybowski, Will Ashcroft and Elijah Tsatas are set to join AFL clubs in the upcoming draft.Credit:afl photos

But recent events – and the continuing trend of players choosing their clubs regardless of age or contract – mean that the draft may not be a panacea, even for clubs that have allegedly stolen their brains.

The draft, while important, no longer shapes the fate of teams in terms of winning matches and finals as it was or was intended to be when it was introduced in 1986 with a salary cap. but less effective than a decade ago.

«The draft is almost irrelevant to the top four or so clubs,» says Mark Evans, Gold Coast CEO and former Hawthorn and AFL football boss. «Given the increase in player movement and players looking to play at clubs in prime ministerial rivalry,» he notes the draft has been weakened as a leveling measure.

Senior club figures and roster managers note that players are more willing to leave these days, as Horne-Francis and Henry do; the best players pick the good teams up the ladder (see Tom Lynch and Jeremy Cameron), almost always making their wishes come true; and the club that loses the player usually goes to the police regardless of the «collateral» available.

Players have always managed to reach the club they largely prefer. «But they’re doing it more and sooner,» says Wayne Campbell, former big Tiger, current Suns, and former GWS head of football.

Theoretically, the team that lost the player should get a fair price. In practice, as Campbell observes, the payoff is «not necessarily related to the player’s value».

In the Melbourne case, they had to accept Fremantle’s two first-round picks for Luke Jackson – one of which was the 13th pick – because that was all the Dockers had to offer. Jackson was uncontracted. Players today aren’t really «chasing a trade with a Victorian club». They nominate a particular club.

With the expansion to 18 teams, up to two teams on paper receive two picks in the top 20 from a low finish. The early priority elections, which quickly followed the flags of Hawthorn (2008) and Collingwood (2010), were canceled by Melbourne’s tanking scandal. A free agent was introduced, a measure that clearly favors the upside.

The Victorian-based first-round picks will be held at Marvel Stadium on Thursday.

The Victorian-based first-round picks will be held at Marvel Stadium on Thursday.Credit:afl photos

«You have to have more leverage than trusting the draft,» says Brian Cook, CEO of Carlton at Geelong when the Cats, whose dynasty was based on the draft from 2007 to 2011, sharply turned into trading and free agency.

Player movement culture changed dramatically when free agency was introduced in 2012. This reveals that most premiership teams make significant use of free agents or trades (the 2016 Bulldogs are an exception). The two top players in the 2022 grand finale were Isaac Smith, who cost the Cats zero draft-wise, and Patrick Dangerfield, whom they bought cheaply because of his access to free agency.

Lynch also cost the Tigers zero draft picks in 2018.

As I noted in 2014, when Tom Boyd and Ryan Griffen left the game despite their contracts, free agency changed the way players look at their relationships with clubs, just as the perfect divorce began in the 1970s, fostering a culture of multiple things. actual and short-term, living relationships: Actors like liberated, post-sexual-revolution couples were allowed to leave.

The two top players in the 2022 grand finale were Isaac Smith, who cost the Cats zero draft-wise, and Patrick Dangerfield, whom they bought cheaply due to free agent access.

The two top players in the 2022 grand finale were Isaac Smith, who cost the Cats zero draft-wise, and Patrick Dangerfield, whom they bought cheaply due to free agent access.Credit:Getty Pictures

Faced with a choice between a late draft pick and a proven mature player like Taranto or Hopper, the opposing team will want a mature player provided they have a salary cap.

This leads to another major change that undermines the draft’s mission to comfort the victims and offend the comfortable: better teams can pay players less than weaker ones.

Lynch and Cameron accepted pay cuts to move from expansion teams to Richmond and Geelong. Lynch agreed to $400,000 less per season at Richmond than he could have gotten in the North. On expansion teams, first-round picks who have squatted are awarded $400,000 plus in their third year.

Perversely, if you have less access to the top 10 selections, as in Geelong and Richmond, then your salary cap is exempt from those inflated third and fourth year contracts. It’s a sure bet that Sam De Koning, a gun in the 2022 premiership, hasn’t played much for his worth in the third year.


The Brodie Grundy trade also highlighted the dwindling strength of the draft compared to player payouts. Grundy was traded to Melbourne for the 27th pick – far from his true worth. But Collingwood’s real gain was the loss of most of a contract worth $900,000 over the next five years; Pies was prepared to lose Grundy and pay a fair share of his contract to make room.

If father-sons and academies jeopardize the draft, there is a greater structural imbalance where players come from, with roughly 55 percent coming from Victoria. Geelong, who hasn’t had access to the high picks for ages, ended up with 17 local players (Geelong, west zone and surf shore) if you count Cameron.

Another sketchy issue: the length of time it took for pure rebuilding, as Carlton and previously Melbourne – which had three consecutive tries before getting it right – can attest.

The draft remains the best and most important tool for clubs to get themselves under. Or to rebuild an aging list. It provides the foundation to build upon, like Carlton’s five A-graders. «You have to have something to build first,» says one well-known listing manager.

Once upon a time, clubs were traded for show and drafted for money. Today the airflow only gets you out of the grassy road or sand trap.


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