Why the Cats don't care about early draft picks - and still succeed

Since reaching a preliminary final in 2004, Geelong have defied the odds.

Including that initial breakthrough season -- when the Cats fell to the fabled Brisbane dynasty outfit -- they have rattled off a 17-year stretch that includes 15 finals appearances, 12 top-four finishes, five Grand Finals and three premierships.

Hawthorn, Sydney, St Kilda and Collingwood have all risen and fallen within that stretch, while the last five years has unearthed the Richmond monster, but the one constant throughout the period has been Geelong.

So, how have they done it, and can they keep defying the odds? Kane Pitman analyses the situation.

Geelong's unusual approach to the draft

Not for the first time, Geelong list manager Stephen Wells is staring an ageing Geelong list in the face, with many suspecting the end of an era is 12-24 months away.

In trading three first-round picks for former Coleman medallist Jeremy Cameron, Geelong have seemingly shunned the future for the now, desperate to go one better than 2020.

On multiple occasions Geelong fielded the oldest team in AFL history in 2020, and despite the retirements of Gary Ablett Jr. and Harry Taylor, the additions of Shaun Higgins and Isaac Smith, both 30 plus, will ensure they are once again loaded with players nearing the end of their career.

Giving away three top-20 picks in one draft is a potentially short-sighted move, but perhaps Geelong's recent history of early selections guided their decision making.

The Cats have made 10 top-30 picks since 2012. Of those 10, Brandon Parfitt was the only one in the 2020 Grand Final team. Jackson Thurlow, Darcy Lang, Nakia Cockatoo, Ryan Gardner and Lachie Fogarty are no longer with the club, combining for an average of 29.4 games in the blue and white hoops.

Of the others, Jordan Clark has shown significant promise and the duo of Cooper Stephens and Sam De Koning are highly regarded but yet to make their debuts after a difficult season for first-year players without a VFL competition.

The other top-30 pick? Tim Kelly, in what was an inspired selection that ultimately returned the trade assets that helped secure Cameron.

Comparisons with the Hawks and Swans

The Cameron trade is not the first time Geelong have parted with early selections in this period, as Patrick Dangerfield, Zach Tuohy and Lachie Henderson made their way to Kardinia Park with first round picks outgoing - all three played in the 2020 Grand Final.

In fielding just five top-20 picks in their 2020 Grand Final team, the secret to the Cats' longevity is unearthed.

In the squad of 26 that was named, 13 players were taken by the Cats as rookie selections or later than pick 40 in the national draft (this is without including Ablett and Tom Hawkins, who were father-son selections who would have been taken significantly earlier).

Tom Stewart and Sam Menegola were inspired mature-age recruits, Mark Blicavs and Mark O'Connor were plucked from obscurity to become mainstays and Gryan Miers, Jack Henry and Sam Simpson were local boys plucked from the Geelong Falcons.

Speaking of local products, the Cats had a staggering 15 players on their list who had played either for the TAC Cup team or VFL side before making the AFL, with 13 of them playing AFL football in 2020 and seven of them being drafted by Wells in the above-mentioned criteria.

Up and down the Geelong list, you find legitimate AFL players who have somehow fallen through the cracks into the hands of Wells. His knowledge of under-the-radar local products in a traditional football hotbed should not be dismissed.

All of this could be attributed to luck, until you remember this was the man who formed the nucleus of the first iteration of this era, with Paul Chapman (pick 31), Cameron Ling (38), Corey Enright (47) and Matthew Stokes (61) an example of late selections that combined for 1,018 games and 11 premiership medals with the Cats.

In comparison, Hawthorn won four flags between 2008-15, only to miss the finals in three of the past four years with a lack of young talent hurting the Hawks. In somewhat of a contrast to the Cats, their dynasty was built on a collection of top-end draft picks: Luke Hodge, Jarryd Roughead, Jordan Lewis, Lance Franklin, Cyril Rioli, Isaac Smith and Grant Birchall were all top-20 selections that fuelled the club's run at the top.

Following the Smith selection at Pick 19 in 2010, the Hawks made only one top-20 pick in the next eight drafts (Ryan Burton) before finally taking Will Day with the 13th selection last season.

Similar to Geelong, Hawthorn used early picks to recruit veteran talent to their list, with Jack Gunston, Brian Lake, Ben McEvoy, Tom Mitchell, Jaegar O'Meara and Chad Wingard requiring significant draft capitol to acquire.

But unlike Geelong, Hawthorn have failed to find late draft gold, with only James Worpel, Blake Hardwick and James Sicily establishing themselves in the best 22 as the club began its decline.

Sydney are another interesting comparison, having missed the finals in back-to-back years after an incredible stretch of 15 appearances in 16 seasons. The Swans' success was also boosted from late draft gems, with Adam Goodes, Kieran Jack, Heath Grundy, Nick Smith, Luke Parker and Dane Rampe sleepers that formed key components of their premiership-contending squads.

Injury-riddled seasons for key players including Lance Franklin and Dan Hannebery contributed to the slide, while losing the experience of Tom Mitchell, Shane Mumford, Toby Nankervis and Zac Jones also hurt the Swans.

Rebuilding on the run - again

Finishing 10th in 2015, Geelong finally looked destined to fall.

In the previous four seasons, Matthew Scarlett, Cameron Ling, Brad Ottens, Joel Corey and Matthew Stokes retired, while Steve Johnson, James Kelly, Paul Chapman and Travis Varcoe also moved on.

Jimmy Bartel and Corey Enright were on their last legs and it seemed inevitable their run at the top of the ladder had come to a close.

But in acquiring Dangerfield and Henderson via trade, the Cats stocked up on veteran players at the expense of young talent, although 12 months later they claimed the draft haul of Parfitt, Stewart, Henry and Simpson as the re-build on the fly began.

If this sounds familiar it should, with the 2020 offseason following a similar trend of sacrificing assets to extend the premiership window, with an eye to the following year's draft in which the Cats have acquired two second-round picks in the Cameron trade.

Much like Dangerfield, Geelong will be hoping Cameron is a genuine star who extends their window for the next five years. While Hawkins is coming off the best season of his career, he is in the twilight, and replacing a key forward of that calibre was always going to be the single most difficult challenge the club faced.

It should be no surprise that Wells held firm on excluding Parfitt and Esava Ratugolea from the trade with GWS, with both figuring to be key pieces of Geelong's future nucleus.

Luck should never be totally dismissed when analysing list management in the AFL and Wells and the Cats would have certainly cashed in on their fair share over the past 15 years.

Reality is, the Cats have conducted a near-full rebuild of their list since that 10th-place finish in 2015, completely bypassing an inevitable slide down the ladder to secure the double-chance in four of the following five seasons.

With the retirements of Ablett and Taylor, the Cats will enter 2021 with only four premiership players on their list if you include Isaac Smith.

Geelong's winning culture has undoubtedly put it in an excellent position to maximise their list but as the Hawks have shown, adding top line talent in their prime matters little if you can't replenish through the draft. Geelong have been able to do so - just not through the traditional method of early selections.

How long the Cats stay at the pointy end is anyone's guess and one gets the feeling this 24-month period for Geelong will be one to look back on and analyse once the immediate on field results are known.

Geelong have been quietly entering uncharted waters for the past five years - the question that remains is how long they can stay afloat.