North Melbourne has endured a rough offseason, losing Jason Horne-Francis and pick No. 1 as part of the 'mega trade', although they were compensated for both losses. The additions of Griffin Logue and Darcy Tucker should also help the Kangaroos play a more competitive brand of football in 2023.
Should North Melbourne have kept pick No. 1 to solve their long-term key forward hole with Aaron Cadman?
One of the worst kept secrets has been Greater Western Sydney's interest in Aaron Cadman with a view towards drafting him as a key forward who can be built around over the long term.
North Melbourne felt comfortable moving pick No. 1 in the 'mega trade' and landing picks 2 and 3. They believe their two preferred prospects will be available with their picks 2 and 3.
The question around why North Melbourne would choose to pass up the opportunity to draft the best key forward in this year's draft has been one of the most frequently asked questions around their offseason and can be answered simply by looking back at the history of the draft.
Inside the top four picks, there is a history with key forwards of underperformance. From 2006-2017, we have seen Scott Gumbleton (2006 - pick No. 2), Jack Watts (2008 - pick No. 1), Jon Patton (2011 - pick No. 1), Tom Boyd (2013 - pick No. 1), Paddy McCartin (2014 - pick No. 1) and Josh Schache (2015 - pick No. 2) drafted as key forwards up the very pointy end of the draft fall short of the expectations associated with their respective selections. Given this history, an element of caution is required, particularly when footballers the calibre of Nic Naitanui, Stephen Coniglio, Josh Kelly, Christian Petracca and Clayton Oliver are taken with the next picks.
The second historical component North Melbourne should be aware of is the frequency with which the premier key forwards make up picks high up the draft order. A look at the top-10 goalkickers in 2022 shows the concentration of the best key forwards who were among the competition's most talented juniors. Charlie Curnow, Tom Lynch, Peter Wright, Max King, Aaron Naughton and Lance Franklin were all first round selections. Tom Hawkins was a star junior who was selected as a father-son and under today's bidding rules would have been one of the first players selected. Jeremy Cameron was one of Greater Western Sydney's most highly touted of their 10 pre-listed talents and would have also been one of the first selected in his draft had he been part of the National Draft. Taylor Walker was a NSW/ACT Scholarship recruit for Adelaide and under the rules of the time, Walker was able to be secured with their final draft choice despite being regarded as one of the most talented key forwards in his draft. Then Bayley Fritsch as the only general forward inside the top-10 was drafted as a mature age prospect.
With the concentration of the best key forwards historically featuring inside the first round and the probability that North Melbourne will finish towards the bottom of the ladder for the next few years, this off-season is not North Melbourne's final opportunity to secure a key forward. This knowledge allows the Kangaroos to pull the trigger on a key forward when they believe the value proposition is right and there is a clear standout who looks good enough to form a potent partnership with Nick Larkey over the long term.
Was moving up to pick 23 a mistake?
The intention behind moving up to pick 23 was two-pronged. The first element of consideration for North Melbourne was around the likelihood Cooper Harvey, who North Melbourne would like to secure as a father-son, would attract a bid. The priority of the trade is moving North Melbourne's third selection into a draft range where a third prospect can be selected before a bid is placed on Harvey.
The second component is moving into a draft range where someone can be selected who projects to develop into a future best 22 player, and ideally in a position of list need. Athletic key forward Isaac Keeler is one such prospect who may be considered by North Melbourne as possible list fits around that range.
Pick No. 59 and North Melbourne's 2023 second round selection is a steep price to pay for pick No. 23, given the 2023 second rounder in next year's draft is believed by most recruiters to be the most valuable pick moving in the exchange.
The first missing ingredient: a lack of veteran leaders who have been part of premiership success or playing for a perennial contender
One ingredient present in most successful sides has been a core of veteran leaders who at some stage in their AFL careers have been part of a leadership group on a team that has either won premierships or been part of a perennial contender.
Following Hawthorn's three-peat, we have seen the immediate impacts of former Hawks premiership players: Sam Mitchell, Jordan Lewis, Luke Hodge, Grant Birchall (free agent) and Isaac Smith (free agent) on their new teams.
Mitchell was traded to West Coast during the 2016 offseason and spent one season playing for the Eagles. West Coast won the 2018 Grand Final, even with a hobbled list and several important players missing. Melbourne secured Lewis via trade during the same offseason. He spent the final three years of his career with the Demons and helped them to their first finals series in over 10 years. Melbourne broke through two years after Lewis' retirement for a premiership. Hodge joined Brisbane in the 2017 offseason, following a wooden spoon season from the Lions. Brisbane upon Hodge's arrival progressed rapidly, finishing 15th and then second over the next two seasons. Grant Birchall joined Brisbane as a free agent to help the Lions to two more successive top four finishes. Then Isaac Smith in 2020 departed Hawthorn as a free agent for Geelong and won the Norm Smith Medal in Geelong's 2022 Grand Final triumph.
In each instance, short, cheap contracts were all that was required. No draft picks of value -- inside the first two rounds -- were given up in order to acquire these footballers.
The impacts of each former Hawthorn premiership player and veteran leader on their new club led either to premiership success, or in the case of Hodge and Birchall joining Brisbane, a sharp move from the bottom of the ladder right into the upper echelon. The on-field performance of each footballer has been strong and of clear best 22 standard, though the greater value provided in each case was in the form of the leadership and the intangibles they provided their new teams. Visible and clearly present, but difficult to measure has been the impact they have had on player development, buy-into and execution of the gameplan, on-field communication and creation of a winning environment that footballers want to be a part of. There are also the lessons shared from their experienced and a new set of winning expectation that get imparted that have enduring impacts on a playing group.
The latest multi-premiership Hawk who could help his new team in this regard is Jack Gunston, one of this trade period's bargains.
North Melbourne would benefit from looking out for similar opportunities and to make strong plays for veteran leaders who have played a part in multiple premierships. With Hawthorn, Richmond and Geelong containing multiple premiership players, keeping track of those who have been part of their premiership sides and looking for opportunities to secure one or more cheaply is a good starting point towards creating a suitable leadership foundation to foster an environment where youth develops and the team more broadly starts to come together and build towards success.
The second missing ingredient - lack of state league talent
From a draft perspective, the largest element of separation between Geelong, as this year's premiership side, and North Melbourne, as Wooden Spooners, has been how heavily they have focused on securing mature age talent.
Currently, the Roos have fewer mature-agers they have drafted to their list than any club in the competition. Only key defender Kallan Dawson, from this year's Mid-Season Draft, and Jackson Edwards, as an overager with the first pick in last year's Mid-Season Draft, are part of North Melbourne's rookie list. There are no senior listed players North Melbourne drafted as mature agers. Ben Brown in 2013 with pick 47 is North Melbourne's most recent successful mature age draftee, who now plays for the Demons.
By contrast, Geelong has enjoyed the most mature age success in the competition over the same period. Last off-season, the Cats secured Tyson Stengle as a delisted free agent, following his successful year in the SANFL. This season, the talented forward went on to win All-Australian selection and play a role in Geelong's 2022 premiership. Also playing a part in Geelong's premiership success were 2019 rookie Brad Close, 2018 rookie Tom Atkins and the 2016 40th selection Tom Stewart, who is now a four time All-Australian and may be Geelong's most important player. The selection of Tim Kelly with the 24th pick in 2017 not only gave Geelong high quality years but his eventual trade paved the way for the arrival of All-Australian and 2022 best and fairest winner Jeremy Cameron. Had a knee injury not impacted Sam Menegola's season, he may have been another former mature age draftee to have enjoyed a flag in 2022.
As Geelong have shown with their mature age selections, there is tremendous opportunity available outside the first round to fill list needs and secure value far exceeding the pick used. Jy Simpkin is the only North Melbourne player drafted over the past eight years to have played more than 85, while no player selected in that time has made an All-Australian team. Greater focus on mature age prospects is how the Kangaroos can improve quickly and fill pressing list needs.
Who are the mature-agers who would suit North Melbourne in this year's AFL Draft?
With holes in North Melbourne's defence, Ethan Phillips and Casey Voss, the son of Michael, are AFL calibre defensive performers who have scope to be in the Roos' best 22 to start 2023. Phillips won the Fothergill-Round-Mitchell Medal, was part of the VFL Team of the Year and led the VFL for marks, intercept marks and intercept possessions last season. Voss has been part of the SANFL Team of the Year each of the past two seasons and won the Fos Williams Medal for best-on-ground for the SANFL against the WAFL. This season, Voss led the SANFL in marks taken and featured in the top five for rebound 50s and kicks. At ages 23 and 22, respectively, they are both young enough to be a part of North Melbourne's long-term core.
The fit of Phillips alongside Ben McKay and Aiden Corr would work as Phillips looks a natural replacement for Josh Walker. Phillips is a strong one-on-one defender who is an expert at reading the game and positioning himself for intercept marks.
Voss is an adept interceptor, skilful kick and competitive defender who doesn't back down from a challenge, displays football smarts and can provide leadership and direction to a young defence.
How can North Melbourne start to reinvent their list during this year's draft?
There's a heap of talent for North Melbourne to target this year, including Harry Sheezel, Mattaes Phillipou, Ethan Phillips and Cooper Harvey in the National Draft while Casey Voss could easily be secured in the Rookie Draft. Sheezel would provide North with a ready-to-go general forward. Phillipou is this year's most exciting midfielder/forward. Phillips this draft's premier state league key defender. Harvey another impressive midfielder/forward. Voss as a plug-and-play piece who can fit straight into the Kangaroos' defence.
If North Melbourne was to target this combination of players, they could likely move down each of their draft selections, other than pick 3 (to be used on Sheezel), to further strengthen their draft hand for 2023, while improving the club's best 22 ahead of Round 1 next season.
Why is moving down from pick No. 2 (George Wardlaw to draft Mattaes Phillipou) is the right play for North Melbourne?
North Melbourne has a combination of established and young midfielders with limited versatility. For list balance reasons, further midfielders secured should ideally not be limited to only playing as midfielders.
George Wardlaw would provide North with a logical replacement for Jason Horne-Francis. He has the aggressiveness, power, and great effort on the defensive side of the ball. Unlike several of the other midfielders projected to feature inside the top 10, Wardlaw is not a dual position impact player, instead he plays his best football as a pure midfielder. The relative risk with Wardlaw that should also be considered is he missed most of the season with a hamstring injury, and in the first five minutes of his return game he strained it again, ending his season there and then.
The major advantage to selecting Phillipou is that while he's influential through the midfield and can complement North Melbourne's existing midfielders with the speed, power, skills and ball winning, he's also damaging forward of centre. When used up forward, Phillipou takes marks, wins his own ball, delivers to targets inside 50m and hits the scoreboard himself, often with some highlight reel plays.
An example trade that could be explored may including North Melbourne moving down to Geelong's pick No. 7 for Mattaes Phillipou, the Cats moving up to Essendon's pick No. 4 to select local midfielder Jhye Clark and Essendon moving up to pick No. 2 for George Wardlaw. In such an exchange, 2023 picks from both Essendon and Geelong would be shifted to North Melbourne, either in the form of picks conceded or pick swaps.