The most valuable players in the AFL? Gulden and Daicos leading the best crop of young guns in years

It’s an age old question (or at least as age old as there has been Australian Football) – who is the most valuable player in the league. Not just right now, but going forward into the future. Which club has the best building block for future success, and who are those nipping at their heels?

This year has thrown up a number of very young players contributing at the highest levels of the game. Nick Daicos was the Brownlow Medal favourite for much of the season, and Errol Gulden was a All Australian lock by the time the season drew to a halt. That’s before names like Butters, Rozee and Horne-Francis thrown into the mix – that’s just the Port midfield youth contingent for those playing at home.

All across the league the kids are making the game their own, as the older heads try to keep up. Right now, one youngster wearing red and white might be the most valuable of them all.

Every year HPN looks into the various trades and free agency pick ups across the league. With the start of the player movement period, HPN’s analysis of these moves begins in earnest.

HPN’s trade analysis process involves applying valuations to draft picks, to player performances, and to projected future output in order to evaluate all the big moves. It also looks at just how excessive free agency compensation might be for a given marginal player.

The projections don’t adjust for new role or situation explicitly, but do look at similar career paths for similar levels of player. Like all projection systems it isn’t perfect, but is a pretty reliable guide to see how players may develop in the future.

The HPN draft pick value chart and trade calculator shows how each player in the league projects into the future, and how much value each draft pick is expected to produce across their careers.

The HPN valuation approach is quantitative, so prioritizes total career value than present value, meaning older players in their absolute peak years through a shorter future have less value than the players who are both very young and very good.

HPN has run this analysis in previous years and the look this year threw up something interesting – the kids right now (those in their very early 20s) are possibly the best they’ve been in at least a decade.

Leading the charge here are Errol Gulden and Nick Daicos, who both finished top five in the Brownlow Medal this year at the ages of 21 and 20 respectively. In fact, including the ineligible Serong, half the top 12 for the most prestigious award in footy feature in the top 15 on this list, a heady mix of youth and high performance.

Gulden being rated ahead of Daicos may shock some, and might be down to the time the young Pie missed with injury towards the end of the season. Availability matters. Even the slightest of injury question marks should be enough to shake the predictions somewhat. Daicos may still have a better career than Gulden.

Both face questions about how they will adapt to full-time duties on the inside of the midfield, or whether they will settle as players that do more damage on the outside. These are pretty small questions considering the ability at such a young age.

It's likely that in the coming years that the exact order of these players' career outputs will shift.

Only Butters and Rozee turn 23 this year, the other four Brownlow front-runners also graced the AFLPA's 22 under 22 team this year.

This is a seriously dominant group of very young players. Projecting young players with little exposed AFL experience is a hard task, but even accounting for large margins of error should see this group of players have noteworthy careers.

What also stands out is the height of the peak of projected value. Gulden and Daicos both project in the mid-200 PAV range, with Gulden especially hitting a future projection last seen from a young Marcus Bontempelli in his tender young days in the mid 2010s.

Five players top the 200 PAV mark after 2023 - a third more than the expected value of pick 1. There was no previous year in the last decade with more than three players rated at over 200 projected future PAV, and often only 1 or 2 were at that level. In short - this level of quality in the AFL, at such a young age, has not existed in recent years.

This group of players, and other very capable players with slightly more difficult career starts such as Will Ashcroft, Matt Rowell, and Jason Horne-Francis, have found their feet very quickly. They have become game breakers and match-winners while still nominally in their development years.

The phenomenon seems to have clubs reconsidering how they traditionally view the very top end of the draft and their development paths, perhaps questioning the assumption that stars need time to find their feet. This trend of the best young players hitting the ground running, may partially explain the high level of interest this year in "trading up" to secure the next such potential instant game-breaker.

Note: This post is part of a series of posts using a valuation method called Player Approximate Value (PAV) to evaluate trades for fairness and balance. Readers can explore these values with tools such as the HPN Trade Calculator to evaluate potential trades.

Elsewhere, read much more about the method and theory behind PAVExpressing the value of players and picks in terms of expected future PAV provides a common currency for comparing them in trades and other movements. Players are projected using PAPLEY, a method to derive expected future PAVs.

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