The HPN AFL Men’s season preview – the tiers of contention

Over at the ABC today, HPN has contributed its AFL men’s season preview for the national broadcaster. Of course, there’s some stuff that is best kept for the dark backalleys of private websites.

That’s right, it’s HPN AFL Men’s preview time. After dark.*

*may not be after dark in your region. Please read now – do not wait to read until sunset.

This piece will have how HPN believes the league will shake out (roughly) this year, and some things to watch over the course of the year.

The evenness is spreading

The AFL is starting to hit a nice spot with parity where most teams, on their day, can beat any other team. Richmond were a struggling side for the first half of last season, before working it out. Conversely, North looked good in the first few rounds before severely dropping away.

This year, rather than a strict ranking order of teams 1 to 18, it makes more sense to group them into tiers. After running the predictions, that’s how it made sense to attack this year.

Later on in the article the predictions will be broken down in more details, so signs of optimism for fans of (almost) all clubs can be found.

The tiers are best read as loose groupings of teams. It wouldn’t be a shock if teams jumped or slid one, or even two, tiers by season’s end. What would be unlikely is a tier six team finishing with the tier one sides.

Let’s go from bottom to top.

Tier 6 – Strugglers (North Melbourne 5.6 wins, Adelaide 4.7 wins)

Some parts of modern sport present a few different “types” of winning. For these teams, winning now isn’t the path to high level success. Instead, it is a search for building blocks and strategies for the future.

Last year on ABC, HPN (with longtime friend of the program James Coventry) outlined the Crows journey from premiership contender to rebuilding project. The Crows have fallen off all across the park, and coming into the 2021 season, the rebuilding project still looks to be in its early stages.

North Melbourne, with their high degree of list turnover, look set to be in a similar position with a new coach. They’ve got some prized young draftees and a lot to test out, not least of which is the leadership role into which banner recruit Jaidyn Stephenson has been thrust.

It would be a shock if either of these teams played finals – a real shock – but stranger things have happened. For both sides, the push up the ladder seems at least a year away, after they have stocked away good draft picks.

Tier 5 – Builders (Sydney 8.3 wins, Essendon 8.0 wins, Gold Coast 8.0 wins)

If North and Adelaide are just starting out on new builds, the Swans, Suns and Bombers shape as more competitive, but perhaps not the most plausible finalists in 2020.

Gold Coast and Sydney are both stocked with young talent and working to achieve lift-off towards the finals berths that look incoming but not imminent. The jump isn’t out of the question for either of them, but they start a fair way back and there’s no obvious reason to project it for them. In terms of reasons to see upside, the Suns underperformed Pythagorean expectations last year, while the player model has Sydney with better player availability this year, starting with an assumption of non-zero Franklin games.

For both sides – the Suns in particular – the rise of their young crop is a little hard to quantify. If HPN had to guess, the eight wins predicted above are one or two lower than they will actually achieve.

Essendon are less obvious to assess, and present an intriguing case. They are freshly stocked with three new top ten draft picks, and they’ve lost important game-plan shaping players such as Saad and McKenna.

In reaching this point, the Bombers have been, frankly speaking, less than the sum of their parts over the past few years. The talent is still there, and getting Jye Caldwell in could help open them up through the middle.

Boasting some of the most exciting and enigmatic players in the game, the Dons have been stuck in footballing purgatory – good enough to pay attention to, not good enough to worry about. A forced list overhaul probably sees them starting further back than previously, but perhaps this time they can get things right.

Tier 4 – The Fringe Threats (GWS 9.7 wins, Hawthorn 9.6 wins, Carlton 9.5 wins, Fremantle 9.1 wins)

The sides in this group are a mix of two still-flawed looking risers and two teams that may well be on their way down the ladder.

As HPN wrote last year for ABC (with James Coventry), father time is undefeated; all teams must fall. Adelaide was the only side to project worse in the future than the Hawks last year, and the Adelaide rebuild is on in earnest. The Hawks, by contrast, have the core of a competitive team (mostly in the middle) surrounded by fringe prospects and unknown talent.

Hawthorn is sort of stuck in a no-man’s land between contending and rebuilding, essentially forgoing youth for years at a time in a bid to stay competitive at the top end of the ladder. This probably leaves them capable of some good wins as long as they can rely on the best ten or so players on their list – HPN’s player model is perhaps more bullish on this than many.

If they suffer some key injuries this year, they could easily be bottom two. The gaps this year are pretty stark, and they don’t have a lot of depth.

The Giants had a down year last year, but still have a lot of talent on their list despite all the defections in recent years. Yes, losing Jeremy Cameron hurts, but they still have four AFL-level key position forwards fighting for a round one spot. Caldwell and Hately moving to new clubs stings, but they still struggled to find games for Tom Green last year.

GWS still have a list as talented as any other. A key issue for them was stagnant and safe ball movement out of defence and in transition – something that should be significantly eased by the man on the mark rule. Additionally, having rucks who are better aerial targets might help their bail-out kicks.

Carlton might be stuck in the middle in general. Getting Zac Williams (severely underrated until very recently) and Saad through the door will immediately help their ball movement, which has looked a little stale in the past.

But there are a lot of unanswered questions. How do their forwards fit together? Can they release Cripps forward more and survive in the middle? Can their defence hold up against the insane number of 1v1 opportunities allowed in the recent past?

The biggest question is whether they have been able to secure enough young talent on their rebuilding path, or if they perhaps started their push a little early.

Finally, Fremantle seem to be putting it together, with the potential exception of having a healthy ruck. There were some really good signs from the Dockers last year, especially defensively, and they have a good blend of established talent and rising kids willing to chip in. It may be a year too early for top level contention, but they are firmly in the mix for finals.

Tier 3 – In the frame (Melbourne 11.7 wins, Collingwood 11.5 wins)

After making the prelim in 2018, Melbourne have had a couple of years to forget. The Dees were perhaps a little lucky to race that far in finals that year, benefiting from a good gamestyle and a lucky draw in the finals, but they were definitely a finals quality team.

But a horror 2019 and some unlucky breaks (including injuries) last year have pushed those days further from the front of mind of fans. The talent is definitely there for the Demons, and it seems to be a bit better distributed than in years past. They are still very inside midfield heavy, but they have attempted to address weaknesses elsewhere. How they hold up early on will likely determine their season.

Melbourne might be the highest variance team of everyone in the competition this year – with reasonable expectations going from bottom two to top two. Who knows what is going to happen with them.

Collingwood, on the other hand, had one of the worst offseasons imaginable last year. After winning a final last year, the Pies have offloaded some high profile names and shed money from the cap. What was a deep midfield group looks a lot shallower without Treloar, and their forward mix doesn’t seem to have hit right.

Still, the Pies defence should be able to keep them in most games, and if their core midfield can stay fit they will provide the forward line with a lot of opportunities.

Tier 2 – The Incumbents (West Coast 13.9 wins, Western Bulldogs 13.6 wins, St Kilda 13.3 wins, Brisbane 13.2 wins)

Anyone from this group could, with fairly modest upticks in key areas, move into the upper echelons of contention.

Many would argue that Brisbane is already there, but there are several loud numerical klaxons warning that they were probably a little ahead of schedule last year, as detailed in the ABC preview. To summarise:

  • A perfect 5-0 record in close games, and 2.7 games of overperformance vs Pythagorean expectations.
  • Three years in a row of nearly unprecedented list continuity (i.e. few injuries) is more likely to regress than continue.
  • More travel compared to hub life means a less favourable run of home ground advantage.

Thus, despite a great 2020, unless they find new improvement, the Lions look more like a side in the challengers tier, rather than a team at the very top.

As for the rest of this group, any of St Kilda, the Bulldogs or the Eagles would not be unexpected top 4 sides or preliminary finalists, while perhaps being slight underdogs for a grand final.

The Saints’ rough early injury run may make them the least likely to perform to their billing right now. They also have an improbably rough draw to contend with, dragging their expected wins down by nearly a full win. Not only do the Saints play arguably the three best sides twice (the Tier 1 sides below), the AFL’s 3-banded fixture weighting has let them down badly. It treated the Eagles, who barely missed top 4, as a “middle band” side, equal to non-finalist Fremantle or Carlton for fixture purposes.

The Saints continued to recruit strongly over the offseason, so a further rise might be on the cards – but it might be a late in season move.

Missing the top 4 by percentage and losing an elimination final by a behind has probably made the Eagles a bit unfashionable as a flag fancy. It would be no surprise to see them return to the heights of 2018. The talent on their list is built to contend this year, even if there are a couple of structural questions across the ground.

HPN wrote a bit about the Bulldogs in the season preview, but to reiterate briefly, the addition of Adam Treloar to an already potent midfield group could be quite important, but more important will be fixing their forward line issues and working out how they will stop deadly tall opposition forward lines.

Tier 1 – The Contenders (Geelong 16.3 wins, Richmond 16.2 wins, Port Adelaide 15.6 wins)

Of the three top tier sides, two were grand finalists and the third bowed out in a preliminary final, by a mere goal to the eventual premiers. Coming into the year, these sides profile as the teams to beat.

The lack of a grand final appearance shouldn’t erase Port’s credentials relative to the other two. Often still thought of as a young team due to some high profile younger players, their list profile is really quite into its prime. Aliir and Fantasia are potentially useful pieces to a team which was already a deserved minor premier. Aliir is probably not a full answer to Port’s vulnerability in defensive size, but he can help them shuffle the deck with matchups and roles.

Richmond have won three premierships in four years and while that probably oversells their edge over other top sides of the era, as premierships inevitably do, there’s no reason to think that with basically the same list they won’t be around the same mark again.

Geelong, one of the oldest teams on record last year, probably underperformed by about a win. They have managed to improve their list with yet more seasoned veterans, and certainly have maintained their window. Last year as HPN described for ABC, Tom Hawkins was given a huge stretch of space to exploit in isolation, and doing that with Jeremy Cameron roaming further up the ground should still work but will be an interesting challenge.

The flag probably runs through two of these three teams, and it’s hard to see all three missing the grand final.

Bonus video preview

Some other looks

Don’t like the headline projection? That’s okay! Here’s some alternative versions, based on some subsets of what went into the overall projection.

The HPN player model is a simple attempt to account for player availability and list change, projecting some win probabilities based on an average level of player availability. This tends to drag down teams who had good 2020 injury runs, and boost teams who struggled on that front. It also somewhat accounts for the movement of key players, for instance by having Adam Treloar directly contribute to the Bulldogs rated strength as the third best player and playing an expected 18-ish games.

It doesn’t account for predicted age or player improvement, but does normalise past performance to a decent degree. The HPN supercomputer broke when it tried to do individual player improvement in this model, so it will probably be in place for next year.

Pythagorean expectation takes points for and against to calculate the expected wins for each team, for instance calling Brisbane a 15 win team (pro-rated) in 2020 rather than an 18 win team. In this way it largely implicitly accounts for the inherent luck in close game results.

Strength of Schedule just nudges the expected wins ratings based on the fixtures. As mentioned above, that hammers St Kilda down nearly a full win, but most other teams see a pretty modest shift because even the uneven AFL fixtures only impact on 5 games and most teams are within half a win of “fair”.

Questions on notice

How will the rule changes effect the game?

Take this as the HPN hypothesis, in lieu of any detailed testing at lower levels. The best guess is that the man on the mark rule will largely improve the movement and flow of the ball around the ground, and increase the importance of intercept markers and quality defensive ball movers. By contrast, inside midfielders will possibly become less valuable as a result.

The change to the interchange cap, coupled with the increase in gametime, will likely create some lopsided splits in first and second half scoring. There’s a lot of research that suggests fatigue affects skill and scoring, and there will probably be some direct evidence this year. Expect fewer big second half comebacks, with first half scoring taking prominence.

Or: don’t wait to find your seat, but you might be able to leave early.

Which players are you watching out for?

There’s always so many to keep an eye on that it’s hard to pick just a group. Some of the players moving to new clubs, such as Williams, Daniher, Saad and Cameron, will be compelling to watch early on to see their roles and how they adjust to new setups.

Green and Rowell shapes as two tremendous young midfielders who may have a lot of responsibility in competitive teams. The continued evolution of the King brothers is a fascinating journey as well.

Beyond that, it’s the glimpses of the young and the last days of the old that are always of interest.

Will the AFL decide on expansion?

The easiest guess here is no, despite the pressure of the Tasmanian Government. What they may do instead is set up a formal process to assess the future direction of the game, including expansion, post the next TV deal. That will put the ball back in the court of the Tas Govt to re-up the deals with North and the Hawks in the meantime.

Can Richmond be beaten?

Yes. They nearly didn’t win the flag last year.

Who, of the predictions above, will under or over perform?

It’s always dangerous to go beyond numbers, but if the Hawks get off to a slow start, the pin may be pulled early. They are on the cusp of a rebuild, albeit one with a lot of committed money to a high level midfield. Given their poor year in 2020, they could have a short deviation and still get some useful players for the future – a two year mini-build.

By the same token the Pies may, if results go poorly, decide to load up on the upcoming draft in a “gap year” type deal. There are a lot of solid parts of their list still, and could contend if healthy.

On the other end of the scale, the young building teams are always the hardest to work out. Let’s include Melbourne, Freo, Carlton and Gold Coast in that bunch. It’s not inconceivable that one of those sides finds the magic to rise up.

HPN is differentiating this preview to the men’s AFL competition as HPN contributed an AFLW preview for the ABC.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *