Footy is Back!
The 2021 AFL season is almost upon us and the excitement builds with each passing day. After an early taste of the fun in the Community Series, winners of three of the last four flags in Richmond contest the opening bounce with Carlton and before setting our DraftKings lineups, here are some key rules changes and players to watch before Round 1 gets underway.
The Games will be Longer: This season, quarters will increase from 16 to 20 minutes in length. In 2020, the four quarters in a match were shortened to 16 minutes in length plus added time to afford training restrictions related to COVID-19 protocols. With a proper pre-season and the hope that there won't be an interruption in the early summer, the length of matches returns back to their normal length and with it scoring will increase as well. We've already seen that come to fruition as six teams topped 100 points in their pre-season fixtures while that occurred only twice in the previous campaign.
Less Rotation will be Permitted: The total number of rotations has decreased from 90 to 75 for this season. While there will still be the same four permitted interchange players, teams will now have 15 fewer opportunities to sub their players in and out of a match. In conjunction with the shortened quarters, increased rotation reduces the available minutes for a given player if they're short on stamina. As a result, teams could be managed in new ways at the end of matches and teams that were already reliant on a few star contributors will likely require those same players to stay on the pitch for longer.
Marks are Moved In-Field: Marks have been moved from 10 meters to 15 meters from the Kick-Off line. This is primarily an issue that affects defensive marks, and balls that are kicked to a player for a mark must be slightly further away from the box in front of a defending team's goalposts. This should open up the field of play as defenders may see their mark numbers decrease and attackers get more chances to close the distance in what was a more routine procedure last season.
More Protection is afforded to Marks: The defender of a mark cannot be substituted, but more importantly, he cannot move laterally towards an opposing player until the referee calls "Play On" under the risk of a 50-meter penalty. This is more of a safety issue as a defender cannot fly in and take out the legs of a jumping attacker, but this could also see marks go to who's the best jumper or who has the best timing instead of being able to undercut an opponent.
Takeaways: With these rule changes, scoring will rise to more normal levels and players will be able to get more touches with less rotation permitted. For marks, defensive marks to progress play are less protected by distance, but all marks are now more protected as defenders cannot laterally interfere with their opponent. As a result, marks could become a key indicator of one's fantasy prowess but AFL fantasy scoring is still heavily driven by who touches the ball the most.
Players to Watch
Here are players from across the pitch who were among the best in their position in 2020 and rising stars who could join that group in 2021.
Brodie Grundy, Collingwood - Last season's highest-scoring ruck, Grundy ranked fifth among all players in total points and was one of only two ruckmen to make the top-10. This was in part done by leading the league in hitouts with 596 in 19 matches, which was 101 more than the next man up, West Coast's Nic Naitanui. Unlike Nic Nat, Grundy was more well-rounded than everyone else in his position with the most disposals among rucks though he only ranked 101st in the league. This is where he made up the distance even though Grundy ranked far behind others in both total tackles and total marks. If there's anyone of ranking among the league's best for another year, it'll take the kind of production that Grundy put together in 2020 to garner high-end value from this position.
Reilly O'Brien, Adelaide - This Crow ranked 10th in 2020 in total points and second among rucks. He also paced his team in total points by some distance with a well-rounded 68 tackles, 64 marks, and 272 total disposals. As a ruckman, O'Brien sat in a distant fifth place in hitouts but still compared well with others in his position due to higher total touches. What really makes the difference for O'Brien is how well he compared with his teammates, and on the back of his brand-new contract, there shouldn't be much change in his production, though a healthy Matt Crouch could compete for value.
Tom Hawkins, Geelong - Last season's top scorer with 49 goals and 36 disposals, Hawkins fired the Cats to a Grand Final loss with a spot on the scoresheet in every Round but one. While those numbers are helped by a deep postseason run, there wasn't much chance of catching him in the leaderboards before then either. Seeing as he was also able to score more than 20 percent of his team's total of 220 goals, Hawkins has proven his ability to consistently score at a high rate and put up solid fantasy numbers, as he was also tied for sixth in the league in marks.
Charlie Dixon, Port Adelaide - The Power top of the ladder for much of the season and Dixon's 34 goals helped make that happen. While he scored only one goal in each of the final three matches of 2020, Dixon was still usually a solid play through his 3.8 marks per match. Where he logged the most fantasy points last season and stands to gain the most in the coming campaign is if he can consistently record double-digit disposals, which he did in just half of his matches.
Lachie Neale, Brisbane - We now get into the big-hitters, as midfielders can get their hands on the ball more often and kick in a few scored to boot. Neale fits that bill, leading the league in fantasy points, a title earned by also leading in disposals and sitting top-24 in marks. Brisbane remains loaded with quality fantasy options and stars alike through Dayne Zorko, Charlie Cameron and Hugh McCluggage, but it was most consistently Neale who made their engine tick. With more minutes on offer and a proper preseason, Neale may look even better in 2021.
Clayton Oliver, Melbourne - Where his team didn't always look so good, Oliver and Christian Petracca were as consistent as it gets and Oliver finished with the second-most fantasy points behind the aforementioned Lachie Neale. What also makes Oliver intriguing is where he balanced out his production, as he only ranked 11th in disposals and much further down the list in marks but was sixth in tackles and tops in clearances. If Oliver continues to play this well in 2021 as he did in 2020, look for the Demons to be pushing harder for a playoff place.
Jake Lloyd, Swans - Lloyd consistently scored at a high level as he led all defenders and ranked fourth in total fantasy points last season. It helped to be on a Sydney team that was usually among the worst in the league, so the ball was more often in their defensive zone than anywhere else. As a result, Lloyd finished 2020 at fifth in total disposals while tying for the 24th-most marks and ranking even lower in tackles. If Sydney goes through another tough year, Lloyd is well-positioned to benefit as a defender who knows how to get his hands on the footy.
Rory Laird, Adelaide - Another defender who had plenty of time on the ball in a struggling team, Laird falls in behind Jake Lloyd among fantasy points by defenders and sits 24th among all players. Across the board, Laird's production was similar in nature to Lloyd's though at lower rates as he finished 2020 at 21st in disposals but balanced his work rate with more tackles (69) than marks (46). In searching for defenders, someone like Laird is always worth tracking because he's so consistent in recording at least 20 disposals and making a few key plays, even in a bad team.
Matthew Rowell, Gold Coast - Rowell's name will probably pop up all over the place after a brief but impressive four-match stretch in 2020, and he likely could have won the Rising Star award if he'd avoided the shoulder surgery that ended his season in July. When on the field, Rowell did exactly what you need for fantasy by recording 20 disposals in all but one match, scoring two goals over the same stretch in June and making 26 total tackles. In a Suns squad full of young talents, Rowell has the most tantalizing potential though Izak Rankine could also become a star in 2021.
Caleb Serong, Geelong - The actual winner of the 2020 Rising Star award, Serong could make the jump that has happened in the past with a jump in production during year two. Despite only logging 236 disposals and making 58 tackles, Serong only played in 14 matches and could excel with another year of playing alongside Nat Fyfe.