With the scope to be top-10 midfielders in the competition if developed to expectation, Collingwood father-son prospect Nick Daicos and South Australian Prodigy Jason Horne-Francis are widely viewed as the two standouts of this year's AFL draft pool.
While it's expected North Melbourne select Horne-Francis with pick one, there has been debate raging throughout the season around who the real number one is. Had the Victorian season not concluded early, there is a case Daicos should be the preferred prospect.
Who is the best performed statistically?
The numbers of Daicos not only compare favourably to Horne-Francis, but favourably to any midfielder to come through the junior ranks in recent times. Daicos' 36 disposals and two-goal per game average in the NAB League compares favourably to Matt Rowell's 32 disposals and Sam Walsh's 30 disposals in their draft years, with the former number one choices both averaging less than one goal.
Horne-Francis by comparison averaged 16.5 disposals and less than one goal per game this year in the SANFL against League opposition. Horne-Francis' numbers are much more achievable and have been done before, with former top five selection Dylan Stephens in 2019 the SANFL's most recent example, averaging a slightly better 18 disposals.
While playing in the SANFL against state league opposition is more difficult than playing NAB League and lower numbers from Horne-Francis should be expected because of it, there was one game where the two future stars played together to give us a baseline.
That game was the AFL Academy clash against Geelong's VFL side. The pair enjoyed equally prominent midfield roles to give us some indication of what they look like sharing the same field and the disparity in their production was clear.
Daicos on the big stage against VFL opposition was the one player for the AFL Academy to stand up through the midfield, with team highs of 26 disposals, 11 contested possessions, six clearances, five tackles, two shots on goal and two score assists. Horne-Francis by contrast managed just 11 disposals, eight contested possessions and a team high eight tackles.
Do the numbers tell the whole story?
While both Daicos and Horne-Francis alike impact games as midfielders and forwards, the way they play, and their impact on games is contrasting.
While Daicos statistically has achieved numbers never seen before in the junior ranks, the way Horne-Francis exerts his defensively through chasing, pressuring and putting his body on the line is like no top end prospect before him. You can rely on Horne-Francis even when unable to find much of the ball or impact a game offensively to defensively impose himself.
In an attacking sense, Horne-Francis plays a high impact per possession game. He often wins the ball off the bounce and on the move at stoppages, while up forward aerially, one-on-one and at ground level he exposes opposition defenders and gives them reason for concern. With the completeness of his game and the number of ways he impacts a winning team, he shouldn't be judged based purely off how much of the ball he finds, with the number of pressure acts and influential moments the eye capturing reflection of his game.
Where Daicos lags behind Horne-Francis is defensive application. Daicos finds the ball at will around the ground and is featured as a go-to-guy both in general play and around stoppages where his creativity, composure, decision making and evasion in traffic features heavily. Up forward, Daicos not only hits the scoreboard and has an innate goal sense, but sets up targets inside 50m for scoring opportunities.
What was promising from Daicos was his sharp improvement defensively over his last few games before the season shut down. He demonstrated rare anticipation in traffic and read opposition decisions so quickly that he would be right there to tackle as soon as the receiver had the ball in their hands. This late improvement suggests that when locked in and focused defensively that Daicos can be a difference maker and has substantial scope for growth defensively.
Daicos' impact per possession is not as high as Horne-Francis and he can by contrast gather some empty numbers as he is often overused around the ground. A much higher portion of the ball Daicos collects is uncontested which further affects his impact per possession, though he still often finds the ball in dangerous positions and can hurt the opposition in his own right, particularly when forward of centre akin to Horne-Francis.
When did Horne-Francis nail down the pick one position on most draft boards and how did he do it?
With no further opportunities for Daicos to impress over the latter portion of the season due to Victoria's lockdowns, Horne-Francis had the opportunity to demonstrate an elevated standard of play and took advantage of it. Horne-Francis over the last two months of the season will have drawn ahead of Daicos on most draft boards. The improvement has predominantly been in the steps Horne-Francis has taken to offensively hurt opposition teams. He has enjoyed a higher frequency of brilliant offensive moments in his quieter games, while his best performances have been even more special and at a peak in the SANFL state-league level.
The ball winning and offensive impact of Horne-Francis has been much less consistent than that demonstrated every week from Daicos, which has led to many favouring Daicos for much of the season. There were over the last two months, though, two games that have elevated Horne-Francis' standing.
In South Adelaide's 52-point win against Central Districts in early August, Horne-Francis was the Panthers' most important player with 22 disposals and three goals. In this game, the powerful midfielder was at his most influential as a ball winner, collecting possessions on the move off the bounce at stoppages as well as hitting the scoreboard.
In what would be his final game of the season, South Adelaide's September 24 preliminary final loss to Glenelg, Horne-Francis played the game of the season and enjoyed arguably the best performance by an under-18 prospect against League opposition in a final.
Horne-Francis amassed 24 disposals, 11 clearances and three goals from six shots on goal. It was the game of his life and a game where every time he got his hands on the ball, he was not just hurting the opposition, but willing his side to the finish. He influenced the game like no other prospect in this draft can both through the midfield and up forward in what appears to be a sign of things to come.
Who is most deserving of being selected first?
With his close to the season, Jason Horne-Francis is hard to go past and is thoroughly deserving of being the first selected. With his balance of offensive and defensive influence, how he exerts his will on games and with the proportion of ball he wins contested, he's one of those footballers you want on your team and one when you're facing off against that you're going to have a hard day competing with. With Horne-Francis' best better than anything we have seen from Daicos, or any other prospect in this pool, he is rightly the consensus No.1 pick.