As season 2014 approaches the business end, BFGN evaluates the most improved player of each team to date.
Adelaide: David Mackay
From talented but inconsistent fringe player to best-22 midfielder, Mackay has taken his game to new heights this season. Now 25, Mackay has finally started to deliver on his obvious potential. He has shown glimpses for several years of the player he threatened to become, and this year has put all elements of his game together to become an important part of Adelaide’s midfield, seen especially in the early part of the season.
Mackay is averaging 18.4 disposals this season, more than in any season since 2010, and his average of 0.6 goals a game is the highest it has ever been, to go with 3.1 marks and 3.9 tackles. In addition, he is ranked ninth in total bounces per game in the competition this season. This suggests that he has found a new level of run and carry. His 29 disposals, eight marks and two goals in Adelaide’s win against the Saints in round four was his best return in a game since early 2013.
Brisbane: Trent West
West impressed in his first season with Brisbane after being traded from Geelong at the end of last year, before he went down with a season-ending ACL injury. Injury to star ruckman Matthew Leuenberger placed the ruck load squarely on West’s shoulders, and perhaps gave him the certainty of senior game time he would otherwise not have had. To West’s credit, he embraced that opportunity with both hands. In his nine full games this season, West averaged 11.4 disposals, 3.3 marks, 2.3 tackles, and 25.7 hitouts, his best figures since his best season of 2012 in which he played 21 games. His absence in the past month has been replaced particularly well by another improver for the Lions in Stefan Martin.
Carlton: Ed Curnow
There are a few Blues who could lay claim to this title – Dylan Buckley becoming a regular member of the Blues’ best 22 prior to injury, Sam Rowe finding good form as a defender and Levi Casboult delivering particularly in recent weeks – but Curnow takes the cake with his form this year before his injury. Having been played as a tagger for much of the past few seasons, Curnow is relishing the freedom he has been given in the midfield this year, and the numbers have reflected this – he is averaging a career high 23 disposals (up from 16.5 last year), 4.5 marks (up from 3.4), and 6.5 tackles (up from 4.7).
Collingwood: Jack Frost
Having played only two games before this season, key defender Frost could have been forgiven for being overwhelmed when he was called into the team in round one as a replacement for injured first-choice defenders Ben Reid and Nathan Brown. However, Frost could not have acquitted himself any better. In the absence of his more qualified team mates, Frost has been rock solid in defence, so much so that coach Nathan Buckley failed to guarantee that Reid and Brown – when fully fit – would walk straight back into the team.
Essendon: Cale Hooker
After being much maligned for his poor decision-making and disposal efficiency throughout his career, Hooker is enjoying a stellar 2014. In addition to playing a superb lock down role on the opposition’s first or second tall forward, Hooker has also greatly improved his disposal output, averaging 19.5 possessions for the season, an increase on his previous career-high average of 18 last season. Also, the average number of marks Hooker has taken is up to eight from 6.9 last season, both clearly demonstrating Hooker’s more offensive play this year.
Fremantle: Cameron Sutcliffe
Sutcliffe made a name for himself as a solid defender last year, playing 19 games, including Fremantle’s finals series. This season has seen him develop a much more offensive side to his game, averaging roughly five more disposals a game, and 1.8 more tackles per game. He hasn’t missed a game this season, and the offensive side to his game is displayed with career highs in the averages of both rebound 50s and bounces.
Geelong: Cam Guthrie
Having played 38 games in the past two seasons, it is perhaps somewhat surprising to rate Guthrie as the Cats’ most improved player. However, Guthrie has taken his game to new heights this season, having stepped into the gaping hole filled by the early-season injury to stalwart Corey Enright. Although he is averaging more disposals (18.5) this season than in any previous season, it is his defensive pressure while tagging and ability to read the game that has stood out this season. Indeed, his most telling statistical improvement this season is in the tackle count, up to 6.1 a game from 2.8 last season.
Gold Coast: Sam Day
When he was drafted with pick three in the 2010 draft, much was expected of Day, and until this year he had largely failed to fulfil that potential. Despite playing 20 games last year, Day was inconsistent, with his good performances followed all too often by poor ones. However, this season, he looks to be finally living up to the lofty expectations placed on him. A move to the backline early in the season has seen him thrive, so much so that he is averaging career high statistics in every category. His newfound confidence saw him kick four goals in the stirring victory against Collingwood at the weekend.
GWS: Will Hoskin-Elliott
Drafted with pick four in the 2011 draft, Hoskin-Elliott has always been a talented player. However, until this season, his form has been inconsistent. He had shown glimpses of his talent, but had failed to put complete performances together, leading to him being in and out of the side – in his previous two seasons, he has failed to play over 10 games in a season. However, this year he has only missed two games (the first fortnight), and what has been evident is his excellent decision-making and disposal efficiency. Of particular note was his performance in round seven against Port Adelaide, where he gathered 20 disposals, eight marks, nine inside-50s, and kicked two goals.
Hawthorn: Will Langford
NSW scholarship draftee Langford has been a victim of the Hawks’ success in recent years, made to wait until the age of 21 to play his first game in 2013. He failed to make an impression in that game, gathering only four disposals. However, with the absence of some key players this year, Langford has found his niche as a tagger, performing the role with aplomb. In addition to curtailing the opposition’s best midfielder each week, Langford managed to win his own ball whilst in the side, averaging 16.9 disposals, 1.6 marks, and 4.7 tackles per game. The return from injury to key personnel, however, has seen Langford lose his spot in recent weeks: he had played in nine of the Hawks’ first 10 games.
Melbourne: Dom Tyson
Eyebrows were raised at the end of last season when Melbourne gave up its coveted second pick in the national draft in exchange for GWS midfielder Tyson and pick nine. Tyson, however, has proved the critics wrong, becoming one of if not Melbourne’s most important player behind Nathan Jones. Tyson is experiencing career-best form, averaging 22.8 disposals, 5.7 marks, and three tackles. What has been most apparent though has been the leadership he has brought to Melbourne’s young and inexperienced team.
North Melbourne: Lachie Hansen
Another high draft pick (pick three, 2006), Hansen has been pilloried in previous seasons for his inability to make decisions under pressure, and for his poor disposal efficiency. 2013 saw him reinvented as a defender, and he has continued to mature and thrive in the role this season. As well as averaging career-best statistics, the biggest improvement in Hansen’s game has been his greater maturity and ability to make the right decisions.
Port Adelaide: Jared Polec
Who would have thought at the end of last season that we’d be talking about Polec as the most improved player of the year? After a few seasons at Brisbane plagued by injury and poor form, Polec came to Port with a point to prove, and has done just that this season. He has racked up disposals, averaging 21 possessions a game, but has also provided grunt to complement Port’s other hard nuts.
Richmond: David Astbury
Astbury’s improvement this season would be of great cheer to the Richmond faithful prior to another injury, given the fans have seen him struggle with physical fragility in his past few seasons. After playing 12 games in the past three seasons, Astbury played each of the Tigers’ first eight games this season, and looked a cool head in a relatively inexperienced Richmond team. His tackling pressure had been a standout, as was his marking ability.
St Kilda: Tom Curren
The Saints have several young players who could lay claim to this title, but Curren’s tagging roles on several of the game’s best midfielders was a standout in the early parts season. After waiting several seasons to make his debut and playing only seven games last year, Curren has featured in the Saints’ first 10 games this season, and has played his tagging role to aplomb.
Sydney: Harry Cunningham
Another young player who has come into the Sydney team and made an immediate impact, Cunningham has improved with every game he has played this season. He has provided a hard edge in the Swans’ midfield, and importantly has been able to exert pressure on the scoreboard. His best performance for the season came against the Suns in round 12, when he booted four goals in a 35-point Sydney victory.
West Coast: Brad Sheppard
An inconsistent, bit-part player for the past several seasons, a move to defence this year has paid dividends for the former midfielder. With injuries to key playmakers Shannon Hurn and Beau Waters, Sheppard has made the rebounding defender role his own, averaging 17.0 disposals, 4.2 marks, 2.7 rebound 50s and 2.1 tackles, with the the first three figures massive improvements on previous years.
Western Bulldogs: Jackson Macrae
Macrae’s ascension this year from talented first year player to genuine midfield gun has been nothing short of fantastic. Taken at pick five in the 2012 draft, Macrae made an impact in his 13 games last year, averaging 17.9 disposals. However, rather than being beset by the second-year blues often common amongst young AFL players, he has taken his game to new levels this season. He is averaging 25.7 disposals, and has developed a more attacking side to his game. Macrae’s form has been all the more impressive given the sporadic form of fellow midfielders.