With a somewhat unique approach to the AFL draft, Geelong have posted exceptional results through bypassing the country's youngest talent in favour of looking at mature age plays.
While most clubs across the competition rebuild through the draft with elite junior talent taken with early picks, Geelong -- since Joel Selwood was drafted with pick 7 in 2006 -- have only since taken one player inside the top 10 - Nakia Cockatoo with pick 10 in 2014.
Geelong's better-than-expected results through the draft have not come off the back of junior talent identification; on the contrary, many of their juniors have been somewhat underwhelming. Instead, the Cats have walked away winners from recent drafts through their deliberate and superior mature age talent identification.
Geelong's mature age talent ID success began with Harry Taylor in 2007 with pick 17 and Shane Mumford in the same rookie draft. James Podsiadly was then drafted during the 2009 rookie draft as a 28-year-old, providing Geelong with an instant number one option inside 50m. Then in 2011, the Cats struck again with Mark Blicavs as a Category B Rookie.
In more recent years, Geelong have placed a greater focus on mature age talent ID and have been rewarded. This has arguably been the key towards Geelong's rebound following their disappointing 2015 season - the only year the Cats have missed the top eight since 2006. Their successful recent mature age recruitment began with Sam Menegola, a two-time AFL listed player with pick 66 in 2015. Tom Stewart followed in 2016 with pick 40. Then came Tim Kelly in 2017 with the 24th selection. Tom Atkins and Bradley Close in 2018 and 2019 respectively as rookies may add to Geelong's long list of mature age success stories.
How mature age selections really stack up
With the benefit of hindsight, on average, a lot of mature age talents should have been drafted earlier than they were. A separate case could easily be made that there are further worthwhile mature age talents running around in the state leagues who are overlooked each year and would far outperform a prospect from under-18s level.
The disparity between what clubs are doing and what they should be doing can be easily illustrated by comparing how few mature age selections have been taken inside the top 15 with how few high-quality mature agers have been selected outside the top 15 in the past 20 years. Over this period, only over-agers Lewis Jetta (pick 14 in 2009) and Nick Haynes (pick 7 in 2011) were among the first 15 selected in their draft years.
While it's too early to determine out of the past two seasons which mature age selections in a re-draft would be top 15 choices, of the over-agers from 2001 onwards -- Sam Mitchell, Brian Lake, Matthew Boyd, Aaron Sandilands, Nick Maxwell, Michael Johnson, Nic Haynes, Jarrod Witts, Jake Lloyd, Aliir Aliir, Charlie Cameron, Jack Steele, Reilly O'Brien, Tom Papley, Tim English and Jordon Butts -- there is merit in suggesting they are consensus top 15 picks in their draft years.
Two years older than their peers were Josh Gibson, Matt Priddis, Bernie Vince, Justin Westhoff, Sam Jacobs, Ben Stratton, Jeremy Howe, Mark Blicavs, Adam Saad and Luke Ryan.
Three years older were Sam Fisher, Harry Taylor, Scott Thompson (North Melbourne), Shane Mumford, Ben Brown, Rowan Marshall, Liam Ryan and Bailey Fritsch.
Four years older were Dale Morris, Isaac Smith, Dayne Zorko, Dane Rampe and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, while Tom Stewart and Tim Kelly were those five years older, but all firmly fit into that same top-15 category from their respective drafts.
Interestingly, there is not one year where there isn't at least one mature ager who is a clear-cut top-15 player from their draft, with most years featuring multiple.
Age should be no barrier
There is a perception in AFL circles that players who are older when they're drafted possess less upside than under-18s prospects. Similarly, there is a generally held view that mature age prospects could plug a hole and play a role, but little more.
These views fit into the myth category, with the historical examples of mature age success suggesting there is more upside with mature age recruitment than is generally believed.
It's possible for mature age prospects to improve more than their younger counterparts because often if they're identified later, they're late developers, either due to growing later, or having no or little exposure to the junior talent pathways.
On top of this, to receive an AFL opportunity as a mature ager, most of the time a strong work ethic and a high level of resilience and professionalism has played a part, given the talent bias AFL clubs have towards under-18s. Mature agers often tend to show a greater urgency knowing they must perform from season to season to have a successful AFL career and their contracts extended.
AFL clubs need only look to international sports to notice the correlation between the drafting of mature age and team success
Mature age recruitment has been a successful concept across world sports broadly and AFL recruiters need only look at the NBA for confirmation of this theory.
The Golden State Warriors' 'big three' consisting of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are the most famous recent example. Golden State won the NBA Championship in 2015 and the following year achieved the greatest win/loss record in NBA history off the back of this core. Each of the Warriors' big three were, in AFL terms, mature age recruits. Curry and Thompson both spent three years in college while Green spent four. Unsurprisingly, each member of the big three continued to improve dramatically after joining the NBA and have become stars.
As with mature age recruits in the AFL, Golden State were able to secure each member of the big three with picks far lower than they would be able to in a hindsight-driven re-draft.
Looking further back, the NBA's most famous team ever, the Chicago Bulls of the '90s, had a similar list profile. For their first three-peat, a big three of Michael Jordan (three years of college), Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant (four years) were the pillars. During the Bulls' second three-peat, Dennis Rodman teamed up with Jordan and Pippen, and while Rodman was traded for by the Bulls, unsurprisingly he is another to spend four years in college before joining the NBA.
How can Geelong take advantage of more mature age talent to improve their list this offseason?
Geelong are committed to securing Tyson Stengle as a delisted free agent after a strong year in the SANFL. While Stengle has had off-field issues, Geelong will be hoping that new development coach Eddie Betts will have a positive influence on the 23-year-old and keep the talented small forward out of trouble and focused on his football.
With the retirement of Lachie Henderson and the trade of Nathan Kreuger leaving Geelong's defence looking thin, the obvious answer for the Cats is to secure a mature age key defender. With Geelong's pick 22 (their first selection in this year's draft) Leek Alleer is the obvious solution as arguably the most talented key defender in this draft. If the Cats miss out on Alleer, they may consider VFL Fothergill-Round-Mitchell medallist Charlie Dean or former Category B rookie Blake Schlensog who Geelong delisted at the end of 2020.
Geelong can also improve their midfield with mature age recruitment. Sandover medallist Bailey Rogers has the capability to not only perform through the midfield, but also rotate forward and impact games. He would be a perfect fit for the Cats as a capable rotation mid.
We will have to wait and see how many mature age prospects the Cats secure this year, but going off their history and continued success, it's again likely that Geelong successfully improves their list with another strong mature age addition or two with their eyes firmly set on the 2022 premiership cup.