The evolution of key position players in the AFL

Every few generations in sport there is a height creep where the average height increases. In each position, you see players taller than in generations past with skillsets more commonly associated with someone much smaller. That height creep in the NBA has seen seven footers drafted who can play on the perimeter, dribble, pass and shoot. In the AFL, we've seen that height creep with 190cm+ midfielders and 200cm+ key position players who are as mobile, skilful, and as adept at ground level as smaller players from generations past become commonplace.

This year, first round contenders Neil Erasmus, Matthew Johnson, Josh Goater, Mitch Knevitt, and St Kilda Next-Generation Academy prospect Mitch Owens are all 190cm or taller. All five can play through the midfield, though in the case of Goater, he's more accustomed to playing in defence, while Owens is better suited to playing an outside role.

Of this year's crop of key position players, the premier tall is Sam Darcy, who stands at 204cm and looms as a future star. Darcy, a father-son for the Western Bulldogs and the son of club great Luke is 7cm taller than his father. Given Luke's great career as a ruckman, it may seem surprising on paper that his son is so much taller than his father, yet is a key position player rather than a ruckman.

Contending to join Darcy inside the top-10 in this year's draft, Mac Andrew is another tall with ruck height who will likely begin his career as a key position player. Once fully developed, a decision on whether Andrew should transition into a ruckman will be made.

Why are the most talented 200cm+ players now being developed as key position players rather than ruckmen?

The history of the most talented ruckmen taken early in the draft has historically been a tale of underperformance and disappointment relative to the success achieved through drafting other types with early draft positions.

Over the past 25 years there has been a disproportionate number of successful ruckmen taken as rookies or traded for from opposition lists at bargain basement prices. This has meant clubs do not need to pay a price premium early in the draft for quality ruckmen.

As rookies, Dean Cox, Aaron Sandilands, Shane Mumford, Darren Jolly, Sam Jacobs and Rowan Marshall have been among the gold standard ruckmen over the past 25 years. While through trade periods, Mumford, Jolly, Jacobs, Brad Ottens, Paddy Ryder, Ben McEvoy, Stefan Martin, Jarrod Witts, Scott Lycett and Toby Nankervis are among those most successful ruckmen to be secured.

Of ruckmen taken inside the top-30 over the past 25 years, Nic Naitanui is the most successful and longest servicing of those to have remained with the team they were drafted to.

The most popular theory around why there have been so few successful ruckmen taken early in the draft has come from the idea those ruckmen taken early normally receive early and regular exposure at AFL level against ruckmen. Due to the physical toll endured through playing as ruckmen at young ages, there has been a shortening of careers and a diminished level of play in their late 20s and early 30s. As a result, those ruckmen taken early have endured an earlier decline than that seen of ruckmen taken with picks 30 or later.

Arguably the most significant change in the talent coming through the junior talent pathways over the past 10 years is the appearance and play of those 200cm or taller. The most talented of these are no longer being developed as ruckmen, but instead as key forwards and in some cases key defenders. Among the competition's premier 200cm or taller key position players, Harris Andrews, Darcy Moore, Harry McKay, Charlie Dixon, Joe Daniher, Max King and Ben King are all among the competition's absolute elite. During the 2020 draft, the trend continued with Riley Thilthorpe, Nik Cox and Zach Reid drafted early and each showing signs that they may join the elite bracket in the future.

How AFL clubs have drafted upon making these observations?

With AFL clubs recognising this trend towards rookie draft successes and how easy it is to trade for quality ruckmen at affordable prices, clubs have shifted away from taking ruckmen early. Daniel Gorringe, 2010's pick 10 and Billy Longer with pick 8 in 2011 were the last of the ruckmen selected top-10 before clubs adjusted their thinking.

Prior to 2012, there was a price premium paid for talented ruckmen early in the draft. In 2012, to the surprise of many draft watchers, Brodie Grundy, a consensus top-10 selection dropped to pick 18 in what felt even then like a severe overadjustment, with Grundy prior to the draft appearing to be the best ruckman drafted since Nic Naitanui in 2008.

Since Grundy was drafted in 2012, only 199cm ruckman and 2019 3rd overall selection Luke Jackson has been drafted inside the first 18 selections with a view towards being a long-term ruckman and eventual successor to Max Gawn.

What does the future hold for 200cm prospects?

While the most talented 200cm prospects today are being drafted as key position players, the next stage in the evolution of the most talented 200cm prospects is likely to lead to genuine ball winning midfielders and tall wings exceeding 200cm. Through the midfield, at 196cm, Patrick Cripps has been the tallest of the star midfielders we have seen to date, while 200cm Nik Cox, if he remains on a wing, could end up being the new prototype wingman of the future.

The keys AFL recruiters will need to look out for with the 200cm midfielder will be elite contested ball winning capabilities and an elite secondary weapon. While for the tall wingman, as with Cox, it will be elite endurance, skills and most likely high-end contested marking capabilities.