The 2018 HPN AFL Preview – Part Three

This year HPN will do a brief club-by-club season preview of the upcoming AFL season. HPN will break down the teams both subjectively, and will predict how they will go on both our standard prediction method based on Pythagorean Expectation and Strength of Schedule, and a more detailed player based team analysis.

This post will look at clubs from Port Adelaide to Western Bulldogs.

For a bit more detail on the Marginal Player Approximate Value (mPAV) measures used here, please see part one of our preview, but for simplicity’s sake here’s what different mPAVs mean:

Average individual game mPAV (average marginal per-game PAV by definition) 0
Average player mPAV (average marginal per-game PAV for all players who played a game) -0.06
Replacement level (23rd best per-game marginal PAV on an average list) -0.13

The mPAV based team predictions are essentially based on the quality of each ranking of player within a list, and how many games each list “rank” might be expected to play. That is to say, it factors in the tendency for players to miss games and it accounts for list change.

Below is the team strength ratings for 2017 which we’ll often refer to in our previews.


Port Adelaide

Strength and weakness: Flat track bullying

We wrote last year that Port Adelaide had “made liars of us” because of the extreme disparity in performance against bottom and top sides. We wrote that “Simply put, Port Adelaide are the best side in the competition against weak opponents and they’re about as good as North Melbourne against the good teams.”

We don’t have numbers or data to show why that might change. But the output against weaker sides indicates undeniable quality at the Power. Nobody is that routinely dominant against even weak sides unless they’re a good side themselves. But what we can say is Port were quite good defensively and through the midfield, and quite poor up forward. Against good sides, they stopped getting enough inside-50s to overcome their poor conversion rate.

The way they fell out of the finals against West Coast didn’t do much to change our assessment, so we’re still left with this as the most recent impression. However, they’ve recruited heavily and the question is what these recruits bring to the table.

Overall, Port shed defenders and midfielders for more offensive quality. Below is their best-22 defined by 2017 mPAV terms, highlighting the list changes they’ve made.

mPAV Off mPAV Def mPAV Mid mPAV total Role
Ryder, Patrick 0.16 -0.09 0.33 0.41 Ruck
Wines, Ollie 0.03 -0.07 0.34 0.30 Pure Midfielder
Howard, Dougal -0.14 0.58 -0.14 0.30 Pure Defender
Wingard, Chad 0.16 -0.11 0.23 0.28 Mid Forward
Ebert, Brad -0.02 -0.03 0.31 0.25 Pure Midfielder
Gray, Robbie 0.26 -0.11 0.09 0.24 Mid Forward
Rockliff, Tom 0.10 -0.10 0.21 0.22 Pure Midfielder
Westhoff, Justin 0.00 0.10 0.04 0.14 General Defender
Dixon, Charlie 0.27 -0.13 0.00 0.14 Pure Forward
Polec, Jared -0.01 0.02 0.12 0.13 General Midfielder
Pittard, Jasper -0.11 0.26 -0.03 0.12 General Defender
Boak, Travis 0.03 -0.07 0.12 0.08 General Midfielder
Jonas, Tom -0.17 0.35 -0.11 0.07 Pure Defender
Bonner, Riley -0.13 0.15 0.00 0.02 General Defender
Ah Chee, Brendon 0.08 -0.12 0.06 0.02 Mid Forward
Gray, Sam 0.10 -0.07 -0.01 0.02 General Fwd
Powell-Pepper, Sam -0.03 -0.09 0.12 0.00 Pure Midfielder
Motlop, Steven 0.07 -0.07 -0.01 -0.02 General Fwd
Austin, Logan -0.21 0.36 -0.18 -0.03 Pure Defender
Broadbent, Matthew -0.12 0.13 -0.05 -0.03 General Defender
Amon, Karl -0.06 0.01 0.01 -0.03 General Midfielder
Hombsch, Jack -0.14 0.23 -0.12 -0.04 General Defender
Trengove, Jackson 0.00 -0.09 0.03 -0.05 General Midfielder
Watts, Jack 0.14 -0.14 -0.05 -0.05 Pure Forward
Houston, Dan -0.15 0.18 -0.10 -0.07 General Defender

(note: Dougal Howard is rated off a very small sample size)

Out goes an above-average mid-forward in Ah Chee, a defender in Austin and a Jackson of all trades in Trengove. In comes two contrasting forwards in Motlop and Watts along with a quality inside-50 generating midfielder in Rockliff. Watts in particular perfectly fills a niche Port need – the link man, the quality kick of the footy who can hit a target inside-50 while also being a marking forward himself.

Overall, they’ve upgraded the offensive capacity of their best side, with Watts, Rockliff and Motlop ranked 5, 7, and 9 on their list for offensive per-game PAV in 2017. They also potentially add to their options for using other offensive players like Wingard and Gray, while Lindsay Thomas is also another above-average offensive option.

The big question: Putting it all together

Port’s best 22 and its structure in 2018 might end up looking quite different than it did last year, due both to list turnover and the opportunities their upgraded offensive weaponry provides for redeploying other players. With Motlop and Watts up forward, what roles will Robbie Gray and Justin Westhoff play? How does Thomas potentially fit in? Will Wingard find a new role with Rockliff entering the midfield? How inside a role will Rockliff play given the presence of Wines and Powell-Pepper? Will any of the steak knives recruits such as Jack Trengove, Trent McKenzie or Dom Barry find a niche?

These are all questions.

Prediction: Pythag 2nd (80% chance of finals). mPAV 2nd (83%).


Strength: Quality of defensive personnel

For most of 2017, Richmond were succeeding through their league best defence as their one-tall forward line was not hitting the scoreboard very heavily. We’re a bit sceptical of the much vaunted Tigers-led “small-ball and forward pressure” revolution here at HPN. Richmond’s midget forward-line was borne of necessity and throughout the regular season it mostly just did a job rather than actually proving a decisive strength.

Even in their finals, the Tigers scored a respectable but not dominant 91, 103 and 108, and it’s debatable whether the forwards were central reason for their victories as opposed to other parts of the ground. No, we stump for the Tigers defence as their crown jewel, which all year was the best in the league at absorbing inside-50 forays without conceding.

The Tigers defensive group, beyond Rance, have pretty much all turned out to be pretty good all-round players.

Off Def Mid mPAV Age in 2018
Rance, Alex -0.14 0.53 -0.12 0.26 29
Astbury, David -0.17 0.24 -0.14 -0.07 27
Vlastuin, Nick -0.1 0.23 -0.06 0.06 24
Broad, Nathan -0.15 0.22 -0.1 -0.03 25
Houli, Bachar -0.08 0.21 -0.02 0.12 30
Conca, Reece -0.14 0.2 -0.08 -0.01 26
Ellis, Brandon -0.09 0.13 -0.03 0.01 25

Alex Rance is his own thing, but the Tigers are not a one-man defence. At many teams, the actual mPAV for their “pure” defenders falls down into average or replacement-level territory. Many perfectly fine but purely negatory defenders like Nick Smith, Mitch Brown and Lynden Dunn fall into this category. What the components of mPAV show, then, is that relatively speaking, a lot of the Tigers defensive players contribute other things as well, which show up in the Mid or Off valuations.

Astbury, rated here as overall just below average per-game value (as noted, this happens with a lot of good purely negating defenders), is the closest thing to a purely defensive player. The relatively high Off or Mid values for Vlastuin, Houli, Conca and Ellis show they can all contribute going in the other direction (a smaller negative number shows them closer to the all-player average for that that area of the ground, something not all defenders provide). This quality has been a handy attribute for the Tigers in maintaining a league-best defence.

Weakness: Forward line

This is the direct flipside of what we just said above. The Tigers cobbled together winning scores all year thanks to the aforementioned defensive prowess but the fact remains, they just were never all that potent a scoring side and won the flag despite this. Their forwards were well below average at generating scores from inside-50s, and it took either the strong midfield giving them disproportionate opportunities to brute-force scores, or their league-best defence bailing them out, to keep their scoring level competitive.

It’s also unlikely that creating lots of goals through forward pressure will work so well when teams have had an off-season to prepare for the likely spread of the strategy to copycat clubs. There’s also probably already several teams out there who are better equipped to handle a small tackling forward line than the somewhat tall Crows and Giants defences were.

The Tigers didn’t magically manufacture another viable tall forward over the off-season, and Ben Griffiths retired, which has committed them once again to fielding some combination of small forwards and midfielders to fill out the space at Riewoldt’s feet. The only real alternatives would be untried youngsters such as Balta or Chol, or using secondary rucks like Hampson or Soldo.

“Small ball” can work at times, but like any novel tactical scheme, without alternatives it does leave them inflexible and probably continuing not to score very well. Richmond have a style which gives them major identifiable strengths and weaknesses, and will stick to that style. It suits their list, but it’s quite an extreme style and history shows those eventually get countered.

The big question: Something something premiership hangover

The premiership Richmond team were a better quality side than the Bulldogs who really did strike gold for a month in 2016. As we said, they had the best defensive team in 2016, and they were pretty good through the midfield and nearly average up forward. But replicating premiership success is hard, and any combination of a slight form decline, a few injuries, teams adjusting tactically, or just random luck, could see them drop off a bit.

That won’t be a “premiership hangover”, however. The Tigers were somewhat unlucky in close games in 2017, but have a harder draw than the bottom-6 weighted draw they had last year. They’re probably going to be among the contenders, but don’t buy that anything short of back-to-back or even top 4 is failure. That’s unfair on everyone.

Prediction: Pythag 5th (69% chance of finals). mPAV 4th (77%).

St Kilda

Strength: Evenness across the ground

The Saints administration know how to rebuild from the bottom of the ladder. They’ve done it through the draft before, acquiring the core of their superb 2000s team in a few years where they focused on acquiring a critical mass of high end talent. They articulated a plan to rebuild again a few years ago, and alongside trading established players, a key part was once again getting depth of young talent across the park.

They know any one pick or recruit could fail, that for every Riewoldt or Hayes you risk a pair of Clarkes, so they have sought to bring in enough picks that they had redundancy built in. The task of recruiting and developing is a work in progress, but the fruits of their labour so far is an even team without obvious list holes anywhere on the ground.

The Saints were within 3% of league average in three of our strength ratings – the closest to a perfectly average team on disply last year (Fremantle’s ratings clustered tightly well below average while Geelong’s were pretty even around 104%). This suggests their recruiting approach is providing them with a good spread of young talent.

When we examine the top of their list, a few things become starkly apparent.

Off Def Mid mPAV Age in 2018 Role
Ross, Sebastian -0.03 0.01 0.24 0.22 25 Pure Midfielder
Steven, Jack 0.01 -0.07 0.27 0.21 28 Pure Midfielder
Dunstan, Luke 0.04 -0.07 0.19 0.16 23 Pure Midfielder
Billings, Jack 0.19 -0.08 0.05 0.15 23 General Fwd
Roberton, Dylan -0.12 0.32 -0.10 0.10 27 General Defender
Longer, Billy 0.08 -0.12 0.13 0.10 25 Ruck
Newnes, Jack -0.05 0.11 0.02 0.08 25 General Defender
Gresham, Jade 0.17 -0.14 0.02 0.05 21 General Fwd
Savage, Shane -0.04 0.10 -0.02 0.04 27 General Defender
Hickey, Tom -0.02 -0.15 0.19 0.03 27 Ruck
Membrey, Tim 0.23 -0.13 -0.09 0.01 24 Pure Forward
Steele, Jack -0.08 -0.05 0.14 0.00 23 Pure Midfielder

Firstly, nobody in the top 12 of their list is turns older than Jack Steven’s 28 in 2018. Second, there’s a pretty even mix of players – four midfielders, two rucks, three defenders, three forwards. There’s maybe a lack of key defenders, but deeper into their value chart sit Carlisle, Austin and Brown, who should be workable key defenders, if not actually strong ones.

The youth and role spread of the core St Kilda group should mean the group will keep improving through experience and development, and it also takes the pressure off the recruiting team who, at a lower profile club, often struggle to land the big names and certainly don’t have the luxury of targeting precise needs each year. Instead they have the flexibility to try to supplement any number of roles where St Kilda are competent if not great.

Weakness: Scoring power

Having just praised their evenness, the flipside to that is the Saints don’t have clearcut weaknesses, but their slightly weaker area in 2017 was the forward line, and now they’ve just lost Nick Riewoldt. The flow-on from that means more falls to McCartin, Membrey and Bruce as talls.

Billings, Gresham, Minchington, Lonie or Weller set them up to try a few things with their general forward setup. However, it’s probably going to be a more traditional structure because marking is a strength of theirs and that went beyond Riewoldt in 2017 with Membrey and Bruce first and third for contested marks at St Kilda. TheSaints were 4th in the league in their rate of marks per inside-50, which suggests the three talls are the ones who they’re going to lean more heavily on.

The big question: Can they improve?

Improvement is relative. If everyone else gets better, you need to get better just to stay where you are. The Saints are looking for leapfrog improvement, and have prepared themselves about as well as a team can to try to jump up the ladder. Stockpiling a critical mass of young talent and waiting for them all to hit their mid-20s is the modern day blueprint but it still requires a bit of luck. Melbourne, who the Saints have been commonly compared with throughout their similar rebuild, splashed out to get a number of veterans to attempt to make the leap (Lewis, Vince, Melksham, Hibberd). The question then is is which players will go from promising to great, when that will happen, and whether enough of them will do so. And will it be this year?

Prediction: Pythag 11th (37% chance of finals). mPAV 10th (32%).


Strength: The Rampe Squad

With Dane Rampe last year in the Home and Away season, the Swans won 13 games and lost just three – without Rampe they won just one of six games. Without Rampe, the Swans had to try a bunch of different things in defence, with a variety of different results. But even with what probably was Rampe’s worst season since 2014, his effect on the defensive unit was transformative, moving the side from being a below average side according to our ratings to one challenging Richmond at the top (as a team the Swans conceded less points, but Richmond were better in terms of score conceded per inside-50).

There are questions with the make-up of the defence this year, especially around the roles of numerous small defenders like Jones and Mills and the contributions of Melican and Aliir, but they derive from a surplus of options and as long as Rampe stays fit, the Swans should have a little room to play around the edges.

Weaknesses: The non-Franklin Forwards

Their weakness won’t be their ruck. Naismith wasn’t that good, with the Swans being 13th for hit-out differential in 2017. They haven’t had a strong ruck division for a number of years, and didn’t have a great hitout differential in any recent grand final year.

Instead, we look at their scoring power to find weakness. Last year Tom Papley established himself as an above average small forward, and Gary Rohan had his most productive year up forward to date, but the options other than Franklin are often a bit thin on the ground for the Swans. Part of this is by design; Franklin being such a dominant, effective forward that quite often the best strategy is to just get him the ball regardless. But he’s even more effective where his teammates, particularly the other tall forwards, can draw an opponent away to prevent Franklin from being double teamed.

The retirement of Kurt Tippett and injury to Sam Naismith likely puts a line through the Callum Sinclair option, and Sam Reid has hasn’t really progressed as hoped since his 2013 season. A lot of Sydney’s premiership hopes will be pinned on solving this problem, because if you can’t score, you can’t win football games.

The big question: When will they finally decline?

Much was written about the potential decline of the Swans before the start of last season, which was followed by six weeks of hot take-ing and four months’ of humble pie eating. Several of the key Swans will be 30 or older in 2018, including two of their best three players in Kennedy and Franklin.

Beyond the older group, there are a core of young mids and utilities starting to hit their prime, such as Mills, Heeney, Parker and Jones. Last year was an opportunity to test the Swans’ young depth after the poor start, and some responded quite well. What may be an issue is the aforementioned key position forward slots, which the Swans will need to develop in the coming years with Franklin’s inevitable losing battle with age. While they might not be the top two premiership threat of recent years, they should be thereabouts in the battle for the flag again this year.

Prediction: Pythag 3rd (80% chance of finals). mPAV 5th (77%).

West Coast

Strength: The bookends

West Coast were above average in both forward and backline strength, sitting 6th and 4th respectively. In both cases there is a main star but others contributing in a diverse range of ways.

Up forward, things are obviously mostly about Kennedy, but Darling provided able support and they’ve now got Brendon Ah Chee coming in as an above-average mid-forward. Jetta at his best contributes laser-accurate inside-50s and the occasional goal secured with legspeed, and maybe LeCras can still contribute for a bit longer while someone like Partington or Karpany develops. With all due respect to the job Vardy, Petrie and Giles did last year, there’s scope for improvement up forward, because Nic Naitanui and Lycett basically didn’t play last year and can either present additional options themselves or free up others by drawing defensive focus.

Down back, the story is mostly about McGovern, especially since he’ll probably get poached at year’s end. However, the intercept markers often get a bit too much focus, and we shouldn’t overlook Barass and McKenzie as very able tall cogs in the 4th-best defense in the league, as well as smaller defenders like Hurn, Yeo, Schofield, and Shepherd. They have options in how they structure here, but with only Butler retiring, unlike everywhere else on the ground, there shouldn’t be much change, allowing West Coast to build more strongly around the rock of their defence in a 2018 that is otherwise in flux for them.

Weakness: Midfielders

The core midfield group is Shuey, Gaff, Sheed and Redden is fine, but last year Mitchell and Priddis provided plenty (we had them 2nd and 3rd for midfield value and 4th and 7th for overall mPAV). Despite this, the Eagles were still pretty poor in the midfield, sitting 14th for inside-50 differential. This year they may end up looking like a men’s version of the Carlton women – stacked at both ends and utterly unable to move or control the footy through the middle. Aside from the eternal hope of rapid youth development, the main hope here is that Naitanui and Lycett improve the supply their midfield recieves.

The big question: how far might they decline?

With the improvement showing elsewhere for most teams in the middle bracket of the ladder, and with the changes wrought on the side since 2017, some sort of decline is almost universally expected. The question though is how severe this decline ends up being. Could they go bottom 4, or are they looking at a holding-pattern sort of 10th on the way either to a rebound or further collapse? The Eagles have one of the biggest gaps between pythagorean expected finals chances (which knows nothing about personnel change) and mPAV-based (which does).

As highlighted above, their bookends are very solid, and in particular they sport a genuinely upper-tier defensive unit that could keep them in a lot of games this year. If they can keep Kennedy and Naitanui on the park that might limit the damage done by other retirees, but on the exposed form of the personnel available, that midfield just looks very questionable in 2018.

Prediction: Pythag 9th (52% chance of finals). mPAV 12th (23%).

Western Bulldogs

Strengths: Ball movement through the middle

The ability of their midfield to move the ball up to their forward line, and to restrict their opposition from doing the same, went from being a key strength that won them a flag in 2016, to being almost the solitary strength of the Bulldogs in 2017, and it shapes to be the same in 2018. For the past two years the Dogs have been one of the most handball heavy sides, often moving the ball by hand as well as foot, with a multitude of players unafraid to take the direct option forward. But this comes at a cost – the Dogs have consistently struggled to turn inside 50s into high value opportunities which they desperately need to do considering the lack of talent they present in that part of the ground.

Weaknesses: The forward line

The latest stop on the Dogs journey to find the “Next Chris Grant” has been reached, with Josh Schache joining the Bulldogs from the Lions. Schache had a poor year in Brisbane last year, partially a function of being a young key position forward, but also suffering in comparison to one of the most promising young KPFs in the league (Hipwood). Last year, Marcus Bontempelli rated as the most valuable Dogs forward according to mPAV; a problem because he also rated as the most important midfielder. While the Dogs are deeper for mids than they are for big bodied forwards, it is robbing the strength of one area of the ground in order to keep their head above the water elsewhere. You can’t fault the Dogs for trying, but Tom Boyd has shown flashes to date without taking the next step, the Travis Cloke experiment didn’t work out and Jake Stringer is at another club. The Dogs will be hoping that Boyd can develop into that centrepiece forward that he has threatened to be (if not this year then down the road), and someone like Campbell, Redpath or Schache can develop into a viable second target, otherwise the Dogs may struggle to kick winning scores this year.

The big question: Are the Dogs more like the 2016 side, or the 2017 side?

After their premiership win of 2016, many football analysts raced to anoint the Bulldogs as the presumptive premiership favourites for the following sesaons, despite the nature of their premiership. There was clearly talent on that 2016 side (those who say Bontempelli is overrated clearly do not watch enough football), but the flag was largely the product of a good side getting hot at the right time of the year, and putting themselves in the right position to capitalise. No side could reasonably be expected to replicate such a run two years in a row, and they didn’t.

Last year, the Dogs underperformed for the amount of talent they have on their list, for a variety of reasons. Scrutiny of how they won the flag likely caused other sides to overprepare to beat them, and personnel issues took their toll throughout the season. The Dogs are probably going to be able to fly under the radar a bit more this year, which will almost certainly help.

The truth for the Dogs almost certainly lies somewhere between the 2016 and 2017 sides – a promising mid-tier side with a couple of very strong areas and a couple of glaring weaknesses. Injuries have already placed a big question mark over their defence in 2018, and their forward line is very much a work in progress. But the underlying talent is there for them to make the finals.

Prediction: Pythag 12th (36% chance of finals). mPAV 8th (47%).

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