ESPN's fearless AFL predictions for 2017

So here we are. Footy's (almost) back.

After such a wild ride through the 2016 season, culminating in Western Bulldogs' emotional, drought-breaking victory, what will this season deliver?

Of course, we can only guess what may transpire. But that's half the fun, isn't it?

The 2017 premier will be ...

Greater Western Sydney. This is hardly an outlandish prediction, but who can go past the Giants as this year's flag fancy?

The fact they lost in heartbreaking fashion to the Western Bulldogs in last year's preliminary final should only harden the Giants' resolve. Add that determination to the ridiculous amount of talent at Leon Cameron's disposal and it's no wonder the rest of the AFL world are scared about what's to come from Sydney's west.

If the majority of the club's rolled-gold guns stay on the park, this is their premiership to lose.

The top eight will look like this ...

Western Bulldogs

St Kilda
West Coast

The wooden spooner will be ...

Brisbane. Unfortunately for new coach Chris Fagan, the Lions may slip one more place on the ladder after they only just avoided last year's wooden spoon.

The Lions' list has holes all over it, not least a defence that conceded more than 500 points more than the 17th-ranked club last year (Essendon). The forward line is inexperienced and lacking goal-kicking power, and while there is talent through the midfield, the Lions will likely struggle against most teams.

Brownlow medallist ...

Marcus Bontempelli. It's hard to believe the Western Bulldogs star is still only 21, such is his poise, leadership and impact on games. Bontempelli isn't a 30-possession-game midfielder like some, but he can single-handedly lift his team to victory and his consistency is ridiculous.

While he will have to vie with a host of vote-stealing teammates, he secured 20 votes last season, not far off the minor placings behind runaway winner Patrick Dangerfield. He can only improve.

Brownlow smokies ...

Tom Mitchell. The Hawks targeted the former Swan as an answer to their contested ball woes and he should blossom with more responsibility in the Hawthorn engine room.

Mitchell notched 12 Brownlow votes last season and should receive more attention from umpires if he becomes the elite inside midfielder he can be. And with no Sam Mitchell or Jordan Lewis stealing votes off him, he could be one to keep an eye on.

Max Gawn. Yes, ruckmen shouldn't be considered Brownlow contenders, considering the dominance of midfielders in the past couple of decades. But Gawn could break the mould. The All Australian ruckman notched 16 votes last year, and with the AFL banning third-man up this season, the big Demon should be even more dominant.

If he does somehow win the league's highest individual honour, look out for one of the best victory speeches in history from the lovable rogue.

Zach Merrett.

After a 19-vote Brownlow breakout season in 2016, Merrett's hopes for this year could go either way. He'll have more support from several teammates who were banned for last season, including new captain Dyson Heppell, Jobe Watson and Heath Hocking. Will that mean Merrett gets less opportunity to shine, or will he shine even brighter with less pressure on him?

If it's the latter, he could be a legitimate contender for the league's top gong.

Biggest slide ...

North Melbourne. The Kangaroos clearly switched into rebuild mode late last year as they limped into the finals. In pensioning off four club stalwarts, it was obvious the Roos wanted to inject youth into their squad and earmark a premiership challenge in the longer-term.

The strategy is a sound one, but it will likely lead to a tumble down the ladder this year. The Roos have a good spread of young talent, but it'll be a case of one step back to take another couple forward later on.

First coach to depart ...

Rodney Eade. There are several coaches under extreme heat heading into 2017 - Nathan Buckley, Damien Hardwick and Ken Hinkley to name but three. However, Eade could be the one who gets the tap on the shoulder first, should Gold Coast stumble through another horror campaign.

In two seasons at the helm, Eade has led the Suns to 16th and 15th on the ladder. Yes, there have been mitigating circumstances with a shocking injury list and lack of resources, but in this results-based industry, the Suns simply have to start producing.

In terms of the fixture, Gold Coast has a mixed bag early on, playing Brisbane (h), GWS (a), Hawthorn (h), Carlton (a), Adelaide (h), North Melbourne (a), Geelong (h) and Port Adelaide (h) before the Round 9 bye. Eade will be desperate to loosen the pressure valve with at least three wins before the break. If not, trouble looms.

Rising Star winner ...

Aaron Francis. The Bombers may excited about their gold-plated No. 1 draft pick from last year in Andrew McGrath, but one of the running defender's teammates may trump him for this year's rising star award.

Francis, pick No. 6 in the 2015 draft, only played three senior games last year but the Dons are bullish about his prospects as a rangy, mid-sized defender with attitude. He takes the game on, takes intercept marks, kicks the ball beautifully and may eventually move into the midfield.

While Francis suffered a minor ankle injury in an intraclub match in early February, if he stays fit, he could announce himself as one of the league's premier young guns.

Best recruit ...

Dion Prestia. Plenty of headlines were made during last year's trade period, but Richmond's pursuit of Gold Coast midfielder Prestia could be the best off-season move of 2016.

The 24-year-old, and fellow hardnut recruit Josh Caddy, will inject serious ball-winning ability, class and hardness into the Tigers' midfield.

Having played 95 matches, he is in his prime. The Tigers gave up a lot for him but he'll almost certainly be worth the investment. Whether it's enough to drag them into the top eight is another matter ...