AFL Phantom Draft: How will the first round of the 2023 draft play out?

Have the Roos and Eagles ended the tanking debate? (3:18)

Rohan Connolly looks at North Melbourne and West Coast's late season wins, and how it affects the notion of 'tanking' in footy. (3:18)

A marathon 24-round home and away season has concluded and, for supporters of the 10 clubs outside finals, attention now turns to the AFL Draft.

The top of the 2023 crop has a blend of prospects. On-ballers often dominate early selections, but a lack of elite midfielders have separated themselves from the chasing pack. Instead, there are forward-half gamechangers in Zane Duursma and Nick Watson, and key position talent including Jed Walter, Daniel Curtin and Nate Caddy.

Sitting atop every draft board in the country remains explosive midfielder Harley Reid. North Melbourne provided one final twist in the tale with their upset win down in Hobart, fueling intrigue as to what West Coast will do with pick one.

This is ESPN's first round phantom draft at the conclusion of the 2023 home and away season.

1. West Coast

Harley Reid
Bendigo Pioneers/Vic Country
MID, 185cm, 82kg
National Champs: 4 games, 19.5 disposals, 1.3 goals, 112 rankings points

This year, Reid has shown off his flexibility and dominance with one of the best bottom-age campaigns ever. He played as a pure centre bounce midfielder for the Bendigo Pioneers, at halfback for Carlton's VFL side, and returned from concussion with bags of goals as a full forward with Vic Country. He's everything you want from a forward-half midfielder, displaying incredible power and aggression to go with good skills and a penchant for the big moment. The Eagles have been strongly linked to Claremont's Dan Curtin and are expected to canvas offers for the top selection, but Reid is the choice if they stay put.

Have the Roos and Eagles ended the tanking debate?

Rohan Connolly looks at North Melbourne and West Coast's late season wins, and how it affects the notion of 'tanking' in footy.

2. Gold Coast (matching bid)
Jed Walter

SUNS Academy/Allies
FWD, 197cm, 91kg
National Champs: 4 games, 13.0 disposals, 2.8 goals, 104 ranking points

The premier key forward this year is Walter, kicking 11 goals across the national championships and earning All Australian honours once more. He's quick on the lead and already has the size and strength to crash packs and take big marks. North would love to pair him with Nick Larkey, but Walter is the jewel of the Suns Academy this year and is staying on the Gold Coast. Expect the Suns to trade pick four, which they would otherwise lose by matching this bid.

3. North Melbourne
Dan Curtin

Claremont/Western Australia
DEF, 195cm, 93kg
National Champs: 4 games, 23.5 disposals, 6.5 marks, 137 ranking points

Curtin is the best key defender in the draft pool, thriving as an interceptor with his reading of the ball and aerial ability. List manager Brady Rawlings has been forthright in regards to North drafting small in recent years, and Curtin's continued performances at WAFL level combined with the likely departure of full back Ben McKay paves the way for him to be the choice here. McKay leaving may also net the Roos pick three, and they await an AFL assistance package that they hope will include Tasmanian ball magnet Ryley Sanders. If West Coast decides to split pick one, North will be in the box seat with a package including pick two and Port Adelaide's first-rounder.

4. Hawthorn
Zane Duursma

Gippsland Power/Vic Country
FWD/MID, 189cm, 79kg
National Champs: 4 games, 15.3 disposals, 1.8 goals, 115 ranking points

The younger brother of Port Adelaide's Xavier and Yasmin, Zane is a freakish talent around goals with his turn of pace, silky skills, and poise. Duursma kicked four goals against Vic Metro to show all of his X-factor traits, something the Hawks have sorely lacked this year. Curtin will appeal to Sam Mitchell's team as a talented tall and Colby McKercher would add to an exciting on-ball brigade, but Duursma's scoreboard impact fills an immediate need.

5. Gold Coast (matching bid)
Ethan Read

SUNS Academy/Allies
RUC, 202cm, 87kg
National Champs: 4 games, 21.5 disposals, 7.5 marks, 119 ranking points

Melbourne lost prized NGA graduate Mac Andrew to the Suns two years ago, and Read is a similarly mobile tall playing in the ruck this year. He's ultra skilful, able to flick off no-look handballs in congestion and pick out teammates off both feet. Read needs to put on size if he's to become a first choice big man, but Allies coach Mark McVeigh is bullish on his prospects as a six-foot-six midfielder. The Suns will match a bid wherever it comes.

6. Melbourne (via Fremantle)
Colby McKercher

Tasmania Devils/Allies
MID, 181cm, 73kg
National Champs: 4 games, 32.8 disposals, 9.3 contested, 150 ranking points

McKercher could not have done more this year, blitzing the opposition each and every week with incredible consistency of performances. Likened to Zach Merrett thanks to his gifted left foot and acceleration, the Tasmanian product would immediately add class to the Dees' on-ball brigade next to the inside beasts of Clayton Oliver and Jack Viney, and allow Christian Petracca to keep spending time forward.

7. GWS (via Richmond)
Nick Watson

Eastern Ranges/Vic Metro
FWD, 170cm, 66kg
National Champs: 4 games, 12.3 disposals, 3.5 goals, 97 ranking points

He's the most exciting prospect to watch this year, capable of freakish things around goals and aerial highlights that defy his height. But there are enough concerns about Watson's size and endeavour to chase and tackle without the ball for him to fall out of the top five this year. Despite the questions on his pressure, he's a mercurial talent that plays in a lead-up role akin to Cody Weightman. The Giants would be hard-pressed to pass on Watson's talent if he slipped through.

8. Geelong
Ryley Sanders

Sandringham Dragons/Allies
MID, 186cm, 85kg
National Champs: 4 games, 35.8 disposals, 14.5 contested, 170 ranking points

Named the Larke Medallist as the best player in the National Championships, Sanders is the premier contested midfielder in the pool. He has the frame and strength to hold position in congestion and doesn't stop racking up the ball. Geelong is desperate for midfield quality, but there will be one less on-baller to choose from if Sanders is part of potential North Melbourne draft assistance, with his Indigenous heritage making him eligible for the Roos' Tasmanian NGA.

9. Essendon
Nate Caddy

Northern Knights/Vic Metro
FWD, 192cm, 91kg
National Champs: 4 games, 11.7 disposals, 2.0 goals, 78 ranking points

A physical and mobile key forward, Caddy has taken a bunch of ripping contested marks and kicked 29 goals across the National Championships and Coates League. The nephew of two-time premiership Tiger Josh, Nate hits the ball full-chested and has shown real competitiveness and aggression as a midfielder in short stints. Essendon hasn't drafted a key forward in the first round since matching a bid on father-son Joe Daniher 11 years ago; it's an aspect of the list Brad Scott will be keen to add to.

10. Adelaide
Connor O'Sullivan

Murray Bushrangers/Vic Country
DEF/FWD, 198cm, 92kg
National Champs: 4 games, 17.8 disposals, 8.3 marks, 99 ranking points

O'Sullivan cemented his credentials with a brilliant National Championships, taking out MVP honours for the carnival-winning Allies. Hailing from Albury but playing at Josh Rachele's Bushrangers, the confident interceptor reads the ball well and has safe hands in the air, and has shown off goalkicking exploits up forward. The Crows lost both Nick Murray and Jordan Butts to long-term injuries, and O'Sullivan presents as a genuine top-10 prospect with capacity to play sooner rather than later.

11. Gold Coast (matching bid)
Jake Rogers

SUNS Academy/Allies
MID, 171cm, 68kg
National Champs: 4 games, 22.5 disposals, 8.5 contested, 108 ranking points

Rogers boasts an elite speed-endurance blend to go with beautiful skills as a midfielder. He bursts from congestion with ball in hand, but is also an excellent tackler for his diminutive size. He rounds out the trio of highly-rated Suns Academy prospects, with the Dogs a likely candidate to bid on Rogers with an eye to the future of their midfield.

12. Western Bulldogs
Darcy Wilson

Murray Bushrangers/Vic Country
MID, 185cm, 73kg
National Champs: 4 games, 16.0 disposals, 1.0 goals, 79 ranking points

Wilson is the prototype modern day wingman with his elite aerobic capacity and propensity to hit the scoreboard. He gives repeat efforts, loves to chase and tackle and finds a tonne of the ball in space. The Dogs have sorely lacked defensive transition running and pressure to which Wilson thrives.

13. Sydney
Ollie Murphy

Sandringham Dragons/Vic Metro
DEF, 200cm, 85kg
National Champs: 4 games, 11.3 disposals, 5.3 intercepts, 74 ranking points

The Swans were willing to part with this selection for Tom Barrass, but Murphy presents as the next best option as a stout key defender with a competitive edge to his game. He can intercept and has neat foot skills, and his rate of development in the past 18 months from the East Brighton Vampires to Vic Metro MVP has clubs eyeing him off as a potential top 10 selection.

14. Western Bulldogs (bid matched)
Jordan Croft

Calder Cannons/Vic Metro
FWD, 200cm, 80kg
National Champs: 4 games, 9.3 disposals, 1.3 goals, 68 ranking points

The Dogs will add another talented key position player to a group including Jamarra Ugle-Hagan and Sam Darcy when they match a likely first-round bid for father-son prospect Jordan Croft, whose father Matthew played 186 games. Croft is a super athlete that flies high and hits the ground running. He was Vic Metro's best forward across the carnival and his rise means the Dogs will look to trade pick 17 knowing a bid for Croft is set to come beforehand.

15. GWS
James Leake

Tasmanian Devils/Allies
DEF/FWD, 188cm, 75kg
National Champs: 4 games, 16.3 disposals, 5.0 marks, 86 ranking points

Leake is coming with a bullet this year after showing impressive defensive work for the Allies in the carnival. He has now been swung forward for the Devils and is kicking bags of goals to keep adding to an enticing package. The Giants have been cautious about drafting metropolitan kids - the good news for GWS is Tasmania is a few years away yet.

16. St Kilda
Caleb Windsor

Eastern Ranges/Vic Metro
MID, 185cm, 74kg National Champs: 4 games, 15.8 disposals, 5.3 score involvements, 82 ranking points

Windsor is a speedy outside midfielder with a penetrating kick, able to take ground with his legs and gain territory with his disposals. The Saints have become one of the best transition sides in the league under Ross Lyon thanks to their outside running power, and Windsor would slot into that system from day one after announcing himself as a first round contender in the national champs.

17. Hawthorn (bid matched)
Will McCabe

Central District/South Australia
DEF/FWD, 197cm, 81kg
National Champs: 3 games, 11.3 disposals, 4.3 intercepts, 95 ranking points

The standout South Australian prospect this year is the intercepting McCabe, whose father Luke played 138 games for the Hawks. He loves to fly for his marks and kickstart transition from defence, and comes at the perfect time for a building Hawks side that lacks key position quality.

18. Carlton
Koltyn Tholstrup

Subiaco/Western Australia
FWD/MID, 188cm, 80kg
National Champs: 3 games, 18.7 disposals, 6.7 score involvements, 88 ranking points

The Blues have targeted needs in past drafts with Ollie Hollands and Jesse Motlop, and are in a position to take upside swings at the best available this year. Tholstrup could be a home run selection with his physicality, power and aggression all hallmarks of his forward-half play. He's a type that the Blues don't have much of - an enforcer in the mould of a Sam Powell-Pepper or Cam Zurhaar with cult hero traits.

19. Melbourne
Will Green

Northern Knights/Vic Metro
RUC, 204cm, 89kg
National Champs: 3 games, 12.0 disposals, 2.3 marks, 100 ranking points

The Dees lost Luke Jackson last year and will likely see the back of Brodie Grundy this year, and their ruck stocks behind skipper Max Gawn are bare. Will Green has steadily risen throughout the year as his competitiveness and physicality begin to rise to his athletic gifts and skills. He has the frame to grow into over time and projects to be a talented ruckman for the future.

20. North Melbourne (via Port Adelaide)
Archie Roberts

Sandringham Dragons/Vic Metro
DEF, 184cm, 77kg
National Champs: 4 games, 20.8 disposals, 4.3 intercepts, 87 ranking points

Roberts boasts speed and dare in abundance off halfback, taking on opponents and weighting passes out in front of leading forwards consistently. He's a leader and a smart decision-maker, and fills a list need for the Roos who have relied heavily on Harry Sheezel's ball use in 2023.

21. Collingwood
Archer Reid

Gippsland Power/Vic Country
FWD, 203cm, 93kg
National Champs: 4 games, 1.0 goals, 63 ranking points

The Pies would love to bring in a key forward that applies immediate selection pressure, but they won't be able to get that with the final pick of the first round. Reid instead presents as a key forward of the future with sky-high upside. The brother of Essendon's Zach, Archer has hit his straps in the back half of the year, proving a difficult matchup with his length and running ability. He has the size to provide back-up ruck minutes, too, but will take time to build size.

Off-Season Key Dates

October 6th to 8th - National AFL Draft Combine

October 6th to 16th - Free Agency

October 9th to 18th - Trade Period

November 20th - AFL Draft Round 1

November 21st - AFL Draft remaining rounds

November 22nd - Pre-season & Rookie Draft