AFL Fantasy Midfielders (Elite) Analysis 2014

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Blindside Sport begins its countdown to the 2014 AFLPremiership season with AFL Fantasy Midfielders Analysis of the ‘Elite’ or ‘Premium’ players in the competition. From Ablett to Swan, Rockliff to Selwood, we break down the prospects of these household names for the Dream Team season ahead.

Without a doubt the most prolific and frustrating Dream Team position, AFL Fantasy limits you to 10 midfielders for the 2014 season, eight of which will need to be played in your starting 22. With 43 midfielders being priced at over $500,000 (our ‘Elite’ category), decisions have to be made. We’re currently of the opinion that the maximum number of players you can have in this category is FIVE, with FOUR being the preferred option and the remainder of the position comprised of both ‘Value’ selections and rookies (both to be published in the coming weeks).

Make sure you’re also across Roman Barbera’s AFL Fantasy Midfield Analysis for ‘Value’ players!

As we’ve detailed below, many out-and-out premiums such as Swan, Ablett and Pendlebury face difficult or less ‘fantasy conducive’ fixtures to begin this coming season. When you combine this with the fact that several elite defenders are poised to get off to a prolific start, this season the midfield is emerging as a competition-defining position through which you can differentiate yourself. More so than any other campaign in recent times, 2014 looks to be the year in which unique midfield selections to begin the season will be rewarded, with more conservative moves leaving you in the wake of those deciding to do the research and chance their arm.

Over the coming weeks, we’ll examine options across all positions, from all teams and within two key price brackets; ‘Elite’ and ‘Value’. Our rookie evaluation will follow but in the meantime, these are the players who have proven themselves in the AFL prior to this coming season.

 

AFL Fantasy Midfield (Elite) Analysis

AFL Fantasy Midfield (Elite) Analysis

 

Dane Swan (COL – $636,600) and Gary Ablett (GCS – $621,200) 

It almost goes without saying that Ablett and Swan make fine additions to any fantasy squad. Both should comfortably finish inside the Top 8 midfielders for the season, however spending over $1.25 million on just 2 players is a big outlay when selecting an initial side. Should you begin the season with both? If you only select one, which should it be?

Those seeking to employ a riskier selection policy may opt to avoid both, however that decision flies more in the face of common sense than it does champion uniqueness and bravery. We strongly advocate attempts at unique selection, however when it comes to the cream of the crop in midfield, you’ll lose ground if you try and be too clever. For example, the seemingly constant threat of Ablett moving forward to ‘finish his career’ may have deterred some Dream Team coaches in previous seasons, but such a move hasn’t eventuated and as such, hasn’t damaged his scores. This in turn means that those seeking to outsmart the pack in not selecting the reigning Brownlow medallist have been hurt badly. Similarly, in 2012, those waiting for Dane Swan to return from his touted mid-season trip to Arizona before selecting him passed on two months in which the Collingwood star scored at an average of 123.38.

General logic requires you select a minimum of one of these two sensations, however if you feel limited to that, Ablett is your man. Against his first 6 opposition for this coming season, Ablett averaged 114 in 2013. Swan meanwhile averaged just 107.40 and is priced more prohibitively than his Suns counterpart by some $15,400. A Round 2 fixture against Sydney (89.50 average in 2013) and a Round 3 clash with the Cats should be enough to deter when considering 3 of Swan’s 4 scores below 100 in 2013 came against those two sides.

Despite Ablett averaging just 76.50 between Rounds 19 and 22 last season, he averaged 123.58 across his remaining 17 matches. Fixtures against Richmond (106 in 2013), Fremantle (101) and Brisbane (105) may not be an overly appealing first three weeks, especially with the prospects of Ryan Crowley and Andrew Raines, however the mercurial Ablett averaged 114.5, 175 and 107.5 against these 3 sides respectively in 2011 and 2012 combined, proving that a tag is no obstacle to fantasy success on his part.

Scott Pendlebury (COL – $611,200) 

Collingwood’s best player and one of the three best midfielders in the competition, you can’t go wrong with Pendlebury – over the long term. An 2013 average of 109.50 against his first 6 opposition for 2014, he trumps his team-mate in Dane Swan (107.50) and arguably presents greater value given his youth and general quality. With new recruits Adams, Karnezis and returning youngsters Elliot, Sidebottom, Thomas, Beams, Martin, Young and Seedsman all providing run for the Magpies, Swan’s average may be eroded by teammates poaching the cheap possessions he relies on so heavily. Pendlebury’s work inside however remains as valuable as ever. His balance of 11th in the league for contested disposals and 10th for uncontested is far more rounded than Swan’s 3rd in uncontested and 22nd in contested.

The prospect of Crowley’s tag in Round 1 (92 against him in 2013) is however, ominous. With further fixtures against Sydney (low score in 2013 of 95) and Richmond (low score in 2013 of 86) in the opening month, there is a risky element to his selection. Can you wait for a moderate fall in price before a string of North Melbourne (2013 average of 125), Essendon (109.50), Carlton (120.50), Adelaide (153) and West Coast (129) lead him from Round 5 to his Round 10 bye?

Sometimes a nervous start is the price you pay for selecting a player guaranteed to perform over the stretch. Pick him and leave him for the year if you are conservatively inclined when selecting your midfield. The braver coaches will have him as an upgrade target if they take not of his fixtures.

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Scott Selwood (WCE – $587,500) and Joel Selwood (GEE – $576,700)

In 2013, we can boast to have had Joel Selwood for the entire season, we were however late to the party in selecting his brother Scott. In 2014 however, both Selwoods are on the radar with both laying legitimate claim to be the more promising selection. We must stress that there is no incorrect selection here.

Last season, Scott Selwood averaged 124.70 points against his first 6 opposition of this coming campaign (the most of any midfielder). Joel meanwhile was the 3rd most prolific, averaging 111.40 points in the same category.

For Joel, his much-anticipated but generally detrimental match-up with Ryan Crowley doesn’t come until Round 9, meaning you’ll have 7 weeks of guaranteed production before his bye in Round 8 and a clash with Fremantle present a perfect opportunity to offload the Geelong captain in favour of someone like Tom Liberatore, a player who promises to finish the season stronger than he starts it. Minor preseason surgery to hit foot may limit the Geelong captain’s preseason, however he is currently adamant it will not impact availability for Round 1.

For Scott, the fact he only played 18 games last season concerns us slightly, especially when you compare the possibility that his Dream Team average of 108.3 was some 11.2 points better than his next best season. Nevertheless, clashes with the Bulldogs (2013 average of 116), Melbourne (142), St Kilda (124), Geelong (112) and Port Adelaide (136) give him every chance to prove us wrong at the start of this campaign. Coaching change in the West will fuel speculation that Selwood’s production may drop, however his tagging obligations in 2013 did little to hinder his production.

Tom Liberatore (WBD – $527,000)

As a starting point, it seems a sensible presumption that the dominance of the Liberatore/Minson combination cannot be repeated in 2014. Liberatore’s 8.4 clearances per match was 0.9 better than 2nd placed Josh P. Kennedy, however more alarmingly, both Ryan Griffen and Matthew Boyd were also in the Top 15 in the competition. The Bulldogs clearance statistics were heavily inflated in 2013 (41.9 per game), just 0.2 behind the unrivalled work of the Sydney Swans. Minson’s 39.1 hit outs per game were also good for 1st in the competition last season and the most of any player this century.

A player with a high ceiling but a low floor, Liberatore is most prolific against teams with high tackle counts in which he can chalk up his 6.2 tackles per game (10th in 2013), record his clearances and generally play in a contested environment. His Dream Team average against the top 9 tackling sides was 103.5 per game in 2013, whilst it fell to just 92 against the more open playing styles of the bottom 9 tackling sides. If you exclude the diabolical Melbourne from that statistic, Liberatore averaged just 81.2 against sides with a more open playing style.

Opening fixtures against West Coast (2nd in tackling in 2013), North Melbourne (15th), Richmond (18th), GWS (14th), Carlton (10th), Adelaide (16th), Essendon (12th) and Melbourne (11th) prior to the Western Bulldogs’ bye bodes poorly for a positive start to 2014 for this young clearance machine.

Tom Rockliff (BRI – $558,800) and Kieran Jack (SYD – $549,400)

Last year we found ourselves selecting Kieran Jack from the outset, having convinced ourselves he was the better option than Josh Kennedy when it came to exploiting Sydney’s excessively early fixture to open the 2013 campaign. This year, we find ourselves towing a completely different line, telling you to stay away!

With a 2013 average of 89.20 against his first 6 opposition of this coming campaign, Jack faces a difficult set of opponents to open the year. Whilst he no doubt will have developed his game and will probably finish the season averaging more than he did last year, there are far better options at his price. If you’re set on selecting a Swan however, look to teammate Dan Hannebery whose prospects we’ve also discussed in our ‘Value’ article.

Tom Rockliff is one such option, however whether you pursue him depends on several factors that will only become evident as preseason moves on. For the Brisbane star to find consistency at the top end of his polarising potential, he needs time in the midfield and Brisbane need to be a decent team. Good news for Rockliff owners, the former appeared to lead to the latter in 2013. When the Lions found their feet towards the end of the campaign, Rockliff averaged 123 points per contest. A coaching change can only be positive when it comes to more midfield time for one of Brisbane’s best given Voss’ attempts to push him forward for much of the 2012 season in particular.

Brent Stanton (ESS – $560,300)

On the topic of coaching change, Bomber Thompson’s charge at Essendon looks to be characterised by fitness, resting of players and an increased midfield rotation to avoid the club’s typical late-season slump. This may be bad news for Brent Stanton, however his incredible record over the first two months of the season makes him a ‘must-consider’ in any event.

In 2013, Stanton began the season with an average of 122 over the first 6 weeks, however ended the season by scoring under 100 points in 5 of his last 7 contests. Similarly, in 2012 he began by averaging 133.88 points over the first 2 months before averaging 78.14 over the last 7 weeks. Whilst North Melbourne and Hawthorn are unlikely to tag heavily in Weeks 1 and 2, Stanton averaged just 92.5 against the two sides in 2013. When you consider contests against Carlton and Fremantle follow and Stanton averaged just 81.4 points against them in 2013, Essendon’s best uncontested player looks to have his reputation as a safe initial Dream Team selection under threat.

Which Stanton will take to the field on March 21st? The one that dominates early in the season, or the one that can’t break a tag? A risk either way given his propensity for both enormous and tiny scores.

Matthew Boyd (WBD – $563,300) and Kane Cornes (PTA – $578,100)

In 2010 when finishing 46th in AFL Dream Team, we selected Kane Cornes from the outset, much to the curiosity of many. “He’s too old”, “he’ll fall away”, they all said. Here we are in 2014 debating whether, after his 2nd most prolific season ever, Kane can maintain his standards. Finally, we’re saying no. The age barrier has to hit at some stage, but it isn’t that we’re worried about. Cornes is still fit, is beyond durable having missed just 6 games since 2003 (most of them from being dropped) and remains a valuable asset to a young Port Adelaide outfit. With the emergence of Port’s young midfield however, the arrival of Polec and several promising players from 2013 yet to really break into the first-choice side, will there we enough ball to go around for everyone? Ebert and Boak will be the players looked for, not Cornes, whose disposal isn’t his strongest asset in any case. We wouldn’t be touching any of the Port players to start the year with Boak (99.70) and Ebert (89.1) both faring poorly in 2013 against their first 6 opposition for this year, however Kane Cornes is the last of the ‘Big 3’ that we’d take a risk on. Players like Marc Murphy, Dayne Beams and even Dale Thomas are terrific alternatives which allow you to save significant funds in your midfield without compromising scoring potential.

Despite averaging 100.5 points per contest in 2013 against his first 6 opposition for 2014, we’re steering clear. You should too with Ryan Griffen coming in $6,300 cheaper and Joel Selwood $1,400 cheaper.

Our advice regarding Matthew Boyd is the same, but for a slightly different reason. For so long he sat atop the fantasy tree with Swan and Ablett and should rightly go down as a Dream Team great, however with soft-tissue injuries plaguing him in 2013, the body is clearly waning. Losing the captaincy and with talk of going full-circle and becoming a tagger once more, there isn’t much of an upside for someone already priced as a genuine elite midfielder. Griffin remains a far superior option despite a poor, fatigue-derived finish to last season.

Ryan Griffen (WBD – $571,800)

A genuine gun, Griffen’s greatest assets are that tags are unlikely to stem his clearance work (6 per game) or respectable tackling statistics (4.9 per game), he runs hard and that his game is conducive to posting big scores against weaker opposition, something that other guns like Josh Kennedy struggle with. Encouragingly and somewhat contrary to our argument, he didn’t perform overly well against weaker opposition last season, meaning that there is still significant room for improvement; ominous when you consider how rapidly the players around him are developing.

Leigh Montagna (STK – $606,000) 

Suspension will keep the Saints’ running midfielder out of a Round 1 clash with Melbourne, terrible news when you consider his 146 against them last year and the 189 he put up against a woeful Fremantle in Round 23. The flat-track bully is missing out on the worst team in the league. End of story.

In saying this, only Carlton’s Ed Curnow was able to control Montagna in 2013, keeping him to an average of 71 points across the sides’ two fixtures. A strong buy after Week 1 and a unique option considering his early suspension, in 2013, Montagna averaged 111.30 points per contest against teams he plays between Rounds 2 and 7 this time around. As a result, he should be on the radar of every coach, even if his bounce-back average of 111.80 points per game last year after two seasons of sub-100 production is unlikely to be repeated.

Given the new rule which allows unlimited trading between Rounds 1 and 2, those willing to select Montagna from the outset of the season are in luck, given the ability to bring him in prior to St Kilda’s Round 2 clash with the GWS Giants.

If you’re looking to exploit St Kilda’s favourable fixture to begin the season, we’re strong believers in Shane Savage’s potential this season. Check out why in our ‘Value’ article.

Steve Johnson (GEE – $641,600) and Trent Cotchin (RIC – $511,300)

Whilst Blindside writers have always shared the general sentiment that Steve Johnson is highly over-rated, he finds himself in our Dream Team squads each and every year on the back of his ability to accumulate cheap and often horribly executed possessions.

Placing typically Johnson-relevant injury and suspension concerns aside, $641,600 is a significant outlay for any player, especially one that has gone from a must-have dual-position player to a pure midfielder. In a year in which several elite players are highly undervalued in midfield, is Johnson too expensive?

Immediate reactions will almost unanimously be yes, however when you consider his dominant record against all opposition last season (worst was an average of 92 v Carlton), propensity to thrive against lesser opponents (156 v Melbourne in 2013), there is scope to consider him in the same ilk as Dane Swan – expensive but necessary.

Given his price and the loss of his classification as a forward, Johnson will almost undoubtedly enter 2014 as one of the most unique fantasy studs of recent seasons, making him a brilliant alternative to players like Swan and Ablett who, as we’ve stated above, have less than perfect runs to begin the coming season.

Cotchin meanwhile is at the other end of the scale, drastically under-valued after scant showings in 2013. Alongside Marc Murphy, he is the next generation of elite, inside, ball-winning midfielders and whilst he appears to represent terrific value at his modest price, we advise against falling for his misleading promise.

Failing to reach the century mark in 11 of his 21 contests in 2013, surpassing 120 points on just 3 occasions, Cotchin’s prominence on the field is failed to convert into fantasy success. The emergence and retention of Dustin Martin, recruitment of Todd Banfield and the cultivation of a dominant forward line point to Richmond focussing Cotchin’s on-field obligations to the contest in the hope that he will be tagged and Dustin Martin be allowed to roam free on the outside. Whilst the team will try and get him free at stoppages, his cheaply accumulated possessions along half-back will subside as the Tigers look towards playing high-tempo football in 2014.

Cotchin’s 4 goals, 9 behinds will almost inevitably be built upon (21 goals in 2012) heading into this season, as should his miserly tackling numbers (3.33 per game, down from 4.86 in 2012), however we still expect plenty of games in which he reaches his 2013 average of 26 disposals and fails to reach 100 fantasy points. That kind production and real-game impact for such insignificant fantasy reward just isn’t tenable in quantity-based scoring systems such as Dream Team.

Callan Ward (GWS – $510,200) and Nat Fyfe (FRE – $530,900)

With the addition of Colin Sylvia to Fremantle’s already packed midfield, the prospect of Nat Fyfe becoming a part-time forward in 2014 appears likely. Becoming the most talented marking midfielder in the competition following the shift of Jimmy Bartel to half-back, Fyfe would be a sensation in an empty forward 50, however the transition, even if it were for mere portions of a game, bodes poorly for fantasy production given Ross Lyon’s contest-based strategy.

When in the midfield, the negligible impact of Stephen Hill in 2013 means Fyfe will be the first Docker tagged, bad news when you consider that on the 4 occasions he was tagged from Round 17 onwards, Fyfe’s highest score was 101. Unfathomably talented and a future Bronwlow medallist, Fyfe appeals more as a mid-year upgrade target, however even then his selection is dependent on his role. An opening schedule of Collingwood, Gold Coast, Hawthorn and Essendon gives him tremendous upside if he is allowed to get off the leash and as such, he should remain a viable candidate as a 4th premium midfielder.

A risky selection given that he hasn’t demonstrated the propensity to emulate the massive ceilings of Johnson, Rockliff and Stanton, we advise against, but are more than prepared for that to blow up in our faces given the lack of natural taggers boasted by his first 4 opposition.

Callan Ward constitutes arguably our most unique midfielder covered in this article. When you combine a sub-par 2013, a maturing Giants midfield around him, a new coach concerned with victory as opposed to development, an elite ruckman in Shane Mumford, being just 23-year-old and a guaranteed starter teammates will look for, you have a fantasy prospect worth considering.

Ward’s greatest barrier to ‘elite’ status so far in his short career has been his inability to break a tag. On nine occasions last season, the GWS co-captain was tagged to below 100 points, averaging just 73.11 across those fixtures. With reports of Tom Scully progressing, the addition of Josh Kelly and increasing presence of Adam Treloar, teams might allow Ward to float across half-back more often in 2014 than they did last season. With more Giants players poised to be used in non-tagging roles under Leon Cameron, opposition attention won’t focus as heavily on Ward, giving him the perfect platform to become a fantasy stud in the mould of former team-mate Ryan Griffen. An opening round fixture against Sydney and a misleadingly difficult game against the Bulldogs in Round 4 are our only match-up concerns prior to his Round 9 bye (another benefit given the rarity of elite midfielders with that weekend off).

Matthew Priddis (WCE – $519,300)

As unashamed fans of Matthew Priddis and firm believers that he should have made the All-Australian squad of 2013, it is with great displeasure that we make him an addition to our ‘avoid’ list for this coming season. Despite inflated career averages against his first 3 opponents of 2014 and an exceptional fantasy season last time out (averaged 100.4, excluding the game in which he was knocked unconscious on 4 points), we can’t advise selecting him as an ‘elite’ fantasy midfielder.

Crucial to West Coast’s finals chances, Priddis is too much a contested player to accumulate points as casually as many other players we’ve covered. Ranked 96th in uncontested possessions in 2013, Priddis ranked 4th in contested disposals, meaning that whilst his tackle count is exceptional (11th in the league), he lacks a Dream Team-conducive playing style. As a reference point, 9 of the top 10 uncontested possession-getters in 2013 had a higher Dream Team average than Priddis.

Adding insult to injury, in 2013, Priddis averaged just 96.83 against his first 6 opposition for 2014 (excluding his 4 point showing against Port Adelaide).

Make sure you’re also across Roman Barbera’s AFL Fantasy Midfield Analysis for ‘Value’ players!

Whether you have your mind made up already, or whether your team will chop and change hundreds of times before the season begins in March, don’t forget to join the conversation, ask questions and pick up unique content in our Forums, on Facebook or on twitter @BlindsideSport.

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On twitter @rombarbera. Australian sports by day, international sports by night. Co-founder of Blindside Sport. Fantasy sport addict.

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