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Draft vs Trade: Where do the top AFL players really come from?

With this tumultuous home and away season of AFL nearing its end, awards nights and finals footy beckon. In light of this, we have asked the question as to where some of the top-end AFL talent really comes from and what it means for premiership success.

Top Draft Picks

It is undeniable that the top picks of the draft promise a high level of skill and ability. As a result, it is unsurprising to find a number of club champions, such as Scott Pendlebury, Dustin Martin, Marcus Bontempelli, Ben Cunnington and Travis Boak all originate within the top 5 picks in their respective years. In the same way, young stars such as Sam Walsh, Andy McGrath, Tim Taranto, Christian Petracca and Jacob Weitering are all floating around the 1-2nd pick mark and they are certainly delivering on their promise.

However, low draft picks are intrinsically linked with a lack of success and accusations of tanking. These sorts of players are supposed to form the foundation for your club and rebound you back into premiership contention after a couple bad years. However, there is no absolute certainty with these picks and mathematically most of your team’s list will have to be made up of later draft picks, rookies and trades. Therefore, we found it interesting to analyse where other top AFL players are coming from, and whether low draft picks are really the best way to rebuild.

Picks that slid down the draft

As mentioned before, there is no certainty around young players and fans are often tormented by draft mishaps, with Richard Tambling being taken before Lance Franklin perhaps being the most notorious case of this. In essence, it is the ability of club recruitment teams to grab some of those ‘sliding’ picks that can set up success. Some dominant players that have gone surprisingly low in the draft (being pick 40 or later), would have to include: Lachie Neale (pick 58), Jeremy McGovern (pick 44), Tom Hawkins (pick 41), James Sicily (pick 56), Josh P Kennedy (pick 40), Rory Sloane (pick 44), Luke Ryan (pick 66), Mark Blicavs (pick 54), Luke Breust (pick 47), Caleb Daniel (pick 46), etc.

With most of these players owning or hunting an All-Australian jacket, it is obvious that some players can develop later in their careers and turn out to be absolute steals and pillars for premiership sides. Therefore, as fans we shouldn’t be too quick to lament at trading for a couple late second rounders, or write off a slow-starting late draft pick or even place all our eggs in the #1 draft pick basket.


Another key element to the management of an AFL list is trading. It is the desire of most clubs to be perceived as a ‘destination club’, because this reputation will bring in star players and hopefully premierships as result. Some would attribute Richmond’s premiership success in 2017 and 2019 to the recruitment of players like Dion Prestia, Josh Caddy and then Tom Lynch. This same situation could be seen in Brisbane currently, with star recruits Lachie Neale and Charlie Cameron leading Brisbane to a top-2 finish and roaring into finals. In the same way, Saints fans will be hoping that Dougal Howard, Paddy Ryder, Brad Hill and Dan Butler can produce the similar results.

However, some teams are notoriously less fortunate on the trade table, with a prime example being Gold Coast, who were infamously slammed for losing so many stars, but trading for club champion Jarrod Witts, the improving Lachie Weller and some stellar compensation picks will ease the pain for them a little. However, the same could not be said for Adelaide, who have lost Jack Gunston, Charlie Cameron, Alex Keath, Phil Davis and Patrick Dangerfield over the years and are left to rebuild and gamble on some really promising youngsters.

Yet, with the introduction of free agency in 2012, it has become more difficult than ever to keep stars at your club, especially while attempting to secure targets from rival clubs. It is this idea that is mirrored in American sport in which trades to rival clubs are very common, asking the question to us as AFL fans as to whether we are willing to move on a number of our star/favourite players for the cause. This has left clubs to hope more than ever that their early draft picks are committed to building success themselves, epitomised by players, mainly star midfielders like Patrick Cripps, re-signing and looking to be ‘one-club players’.

With this in mind, it is hard to ignore legendary coach Alastair Clarkson’s faith in trading over the draft, exemplified by his ruthless trading of premiership heroes for of the likes of Tom Mitchell, Jaeger O’Meara, Tom Scully, Chad Wingard, Sam Frost, Jarman Impey, Jack Scrimshaw, Jon Patton, etc. Serving to add some authority to the idea that trades are the key path to rebuild.

Where does this leave us

With the recent retirement of Blues pick 1’s Bryce Gibbs and Matthew Kreuzer signalling another failed rebuild, the microscope is hanging over the idea of rebuilding with low picks more than ever. This article has served to put the spotlight on some players who have mastered their craft after being underrated at a younger age or may flourish at new clubs.

Overall, whilst youth and guaranteed talent are certainly comforting for some fans, we have to see through the example power players such as Richmond and West Coast that the secret to premiership success lies within the hidden gems of the AFL and rookie draft, in tandem with the trade table. It is the ability of these clubs to instil a culture of belief and keeping stars and free agents like Dustin Martin and Andrew Gaff around despite clearly more lucrative deals from opposition clubs that really sets the tone for success. This should hopefully encourage all fans to see their side is only a couple of good deals and finds away from finals success.


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