Jude Bolton's way-too-early predictions for the 2018 AFL season

Yes, it's early January. Yes, there's still a stack of torturous summer training to be completed. Yes, there's still both the AFLX and JLT pre-season competitions to come. But it's never too early to whip out the crystal ball ahead of another AFL season, right?

After two incredible fairytale premiership wins, fans from all clubs -- well, maybe not North Melbourne, Gold Coast or Carlton supporters -- will be dreaming of experiencing the same glory in 2018. It's shaping up as another hugely even season, with as many as 14 potential finalists in my opinion.

I'm predicting an all-Sydney grand final, with the Swans no doubt driven by their horror start and finish to last season, while their 'younger brothers' across town are dripping with talent across every line, and are ready to go one better after deep September campaigns in the previous two years.

So, will your club improve, tread water or fall away next season? Here's my way-too-early predictions for each team.

ADELAIDE CROWS

The Crows will be stinging after their poor performance in the grand final, when only a few could hold their head high in what was a harrowing finish to 2017. The grand final shocker aside, all up it was a terrific season for the Crows who should be right in the thick of things again this season.

Adding Bryce Gibbs to their midfield adds further class and depth to an already strong engine room. However, there were some key off-season blows. Jake Lever is a huge loss to their defensive unit while sadly, Brodie Smith will miss the season due to an ACL injury, and Charlie Cameron's exodus in trade week may affect their line-breaking ability. The Crows, though, should still be right in the mix for top-four.

BRISBANE LIONS

There is huge upside to this young list and the Lions need to make 2018 the year they take big steps forward. The young Lion cubs need a few wins and consistency of effort to keep building under Chris Fagan - if their top draft picks impact the season early, they could again catch a number of teams off guard.

Last year, Dayne Beams showed his true worth as skipper but without Tom Rockliff in Lions colours, there is opportunity to widen their leadership and influence in the group. Enter Luke Hodge!

CARLTON

The Blues have endured two poor seasons under Brendon Bolton and copped some devastating news recently with Sam Docherty to miss the 2018 season with a ruptured ACL. As the Blues continue to build under Bolton, they lose their All-Australian defender, adding to Bryce Gibbs' departure to Adelaide.

It will take major improvement from the Blues to push their way toward the middle of the table.

COLLINGWOOD

Who knows what will happen with the Pies this year! They really could play finals or tumble down towards the bottom four.

Last year's weaknesses -- ball use and an inability to kick winning scores -- must be rectified, otherwise it'll be another year of intense pressure for Nathan Buckley and Co.

Darcy Moore has enormous talent and could elevate himself into one of the premier key forwards in the league but he needs more support to help capitalise on the Pies' loaded midfield.

Will they play finals? Possibly, but not probably - I have them finishing mid-table at this early stage.

ESSENDON

The Dons were the big winners of the trade period. Adrian Dodoro will be sunning himself during the summer months having secured a number of excitement machines in Jake Stringer, Adam Saad and Devon Smith.

But with expectation comes pressure, so expect all eyes to be on the red and black this year, and I expect their attacking brand of footy to deliver. If Joe Daniher continues his rise, they could be playing more than just the first week of finals.

FREMANTLE

The Dockers picked up a couple of handy players in the off-season in Brandon Matera and Nathan Wilson -- Wilson in particular will be a huge addition with his spark, run and prodigious kick -- while No. 2 draft pick Andrew Brayshaw looks capable of stepping up to AFL level from day one.

Coach Ross Lyon has never overseen a full rebuild but he's been slowly turning over the list and late last year looked to be coaching with one eye on the future. He'll continue to tinker and reinvigorate the set-up will certainly ensure they test a few sides this year.

A scary thought for rivals is captain Nat Fyfe back to full fitness but I don't think they'll be pushing for finals just yet.

GEELONG CATS

The prodigal son returns! What a midfield the Cat's now boast: Joel Selwood, Patrick Dangerfield, Gary Ablett Jnr - if you're an opposition coach, it is the stuff of nightmares.

What will please Cats fans however is the addition of Stewart Crameri. He needs to get his body right but if he can assist up front with Tom Hawkins, it will allow Harry Taylor to remain in the backline for most of the season.

Geelong are up to their ears in the hunt for the flag.

GOLD COAST SUNS

This is a huge test of Stuart Dew's coaching credentials. He obviously comes from a club with a fantastic ingrained culture and hopefully he can bring that team-first attitude to the Gold Coast, because to be honest, the club has to fight tooth and nail to become relevant again.

Dew should also try to instil a team-first defence and a combative mindset, so the Suns make other teams earn the four points, if not claim them themselves.

It will be fascinating to see whether the loss of Gary Ablett will be a positive or negative for the Suns. But all signs point to a tough year for Dew and his charges.

GWS GIANTS

The Giants weren't all that active in the trade period despite losing Devon Smith and Nathan Wilson. Still, there's a breadth and depth of talent at Leon Cameron's disposal that most clubs would be envious of.

After back-to-back preliminary finals, it will be fascinating to see how they rebound from their disappointing loss to Richmond at the penultimate hurdle last year. The group is still relatively young but extremely talented and they need to capitalise on that talent as soon as possible.

Premierships are just so hard to win but the Giants are right in the mix for this year's.

HAWTHORN

There's been a dramatic changing of the guard at Waverley in the past 12-18 months, with Alastair Clarkson regenerating his ageing team of champions. There is some quality on the list, but also a lot of question marks.

To me, they appear to be a mid-table team, at best. Not every club can improve over summer and the Hawks will probably finish about the same as they did last season.

MELBOURNE

It hasn't been a great off-season so far for the Dees, with the players cancelling an Army-style boot camp. It's a horrible look for a club trying to shed perceptions of softness and raises further question marks after an horrific final-round capitulation last year cost Melbourne a drought-breaking finals berth.

The good news is, there's more than enough talent at the Demons for them to jump up the ladder and finally taste September action. I love the combative midfield and if they get their tails up through the season, who knows how far they can go.

The big challenge is consistency. For more than a decade, the Demons have appeared to pick and choose when they give maximum effort - you just can't afford to switch off week in, week out.

NORTH MELBOURNE

Another tough season looms for North Melbourne. They have gone the full-blown rebuild and there's more pain to come before they eventually benefit.

One of the most head-scratching developments of last year was Todd Goldstein's fall from grace, which was unbelievable. The Roos lack for strong senior players and Goldstein must help lead from the front.

I think avoiding the wooden spoon will be an achievement for this team - I just don't think they have the talent to win many games, and the pressure may start to build on Brad Scott.

PORT ADELAIDE

Putting together a 14-win home and away season in 2017 and then securing the talents of Tom Rockliff, Steven Motlop and Jack Watts leaves Port Adelaide fans dreaming big things.

Ken Hinkley's men returned to some of their 'blue collar' style which was evident in the coach's early tenure. Could 2018 be the year the Power truly flick the switch?

RICHMOND

Pinch yourselves Tigers fans, not since 1981 have you started a season as the 'reigning premiers'.

After what was a dream run, Damien Hardwick now has a list that is cohesive and evenly poised to press again. On the back of strong front half pressure and leadership they unlocked what was missing to dominate throughout September and deliver big time.

Can they maintain the rage and deal with newfound pressure? A huge membership base has awoken - this is going to be fun to watch!

ST KILDA

What to make of the Saints? Like so many teams, their fans would have looked on enviously as the Bulldogs and Tigers broke famous premiership droughts in the past two seasons, leaving many supporters to wonder "what about us?"

The club has stockpiled quality young players in recent years but they can go missing in between and during matches. And without Nick Riewoldt and Leigh Montagna, who will drive that search for consistency? The younger generation needs to ensure the high standards their former senior players set remain front of mind during another long season.

Can they play finals? Possibly, but they might just fall short.

SYDNEY SWANS

After a horror 0-6 start, expect John Longmire to be riding this group the entire pre-season for a Round 1 win when they take on the Eagles at the new Perth stadium.

They picked up what was needed in the draft - speed and skill off half-back which will add another element. With Josh Kennedy, Dan Hannebery, Luke Parker, Isaac Heeney and Co through the midfield, and Buddy up forward, it's no wonder many pundits, myself included, have them pushing again for a deep finals berth.

WEST COAST EAGLES

The 'Nic Nat factor' looms large in assessing the Eagles' hopes in 2018. If he comes back fit and close to his impactful best, the Eagles may challenge for finals again. If not, then there's every chance they slip down the ladder.

The list does have holes in it, but playing in Perth is such an advantage for the WA teams, so they should notch up almost enough wins at home to be on the fringes of the top eight.

A key factor for me is the effort of players such as Jack Darling and Lewis Jetta. I remember Paul Roos used to tell us "there's effort, and then there's absolute effort" and I think the Eagles, especially the likes of Darling and Jetta, have chosen the former too often in recent seasons.

If they maintain a manic mindset through the season, then September awaits.

WESTERN BULLDOGS

A disappointing year after breaking the premiership drought the year prior. It highlights just how tough it is to back up year in, year out particularly when you are being hunted.

They lost a little of their consistent toughness and hit around the footy, but I expect that to return and the Dogs to bounce back this year.