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The 2018 depth chart

Welcome to the 2018 North Melbourne depth chart, a concept we’ll be revisiting on a regular basis throughout the season.

For those who aren’t familiar with how a depth chart works, what we’ll be doing is dividing the playing list into their respective positions, and then rating them from top to the opposite of top. Saying bottom just sounds so harsh.

No doubt it will change regularly as form, injuries and position shifts exert their influence, so we’ll be sure to revise as often as needed.

Last year Champion Data classified players in one of the following eight categories: Midfielder, Wing, Mid-Forward, Key Forward, General Forward, Key Defender, General Defender or Ruck.

(Note: I’m still suffering withdrawal symptoms from not having access to Champion Data statistics anymore. Please send help.)

That’s not how we’ll classify the list here though. There are some differences between the Champion Data classification and how North usually sets up, so we’ll go with the following categories: Tall Forwards, Half Forwards, Midfield, Outside Midfield, Half Backs, General Defenders, Tall Defenders and Ruck.

Some players will feature in more than one position. As an example, at various points this year Jamie Macmillan will be used as a small defender, medium defender, half back or even on the wing.

However, for the sake of preventing this piece clocking in at 5,000 words, we’ll keep each player to the one or two positions they’ll spend the majority of time this season.

Let’s go through the lines shall we?

The above is under the assumption everyone is fit at the same time. Stop laughing.

We’ll start at the top right corner, because the tall forwards and rucks create a domino effect which influence the structure in the rest of the side.

It appears the days of three genuine key position forwards are all but over, which is likely a combination of the way the game is trending and the decision to move Ben McKay and Majak Daw down back for the time being.

Nevertheless, if you’re playing two – Ben Brown and Jarrad Waite – plus Mason Wood, you surely have no room to play both Todd Goldstein and Braydon Preuss.

Forward pressure has never been more important in the AFL than it is right now; it’s a world ahead of even where it was 24 months ago. If a side has all of Brown, Waite, Goldstein and Preuss in at the same time, can the forward half work past its physical limitations at ground level to exert enough pressure?

It’s why my working theory is the move to push Daw and McKay to the other end of the ground was as much for their development as it was to open up a spot for Preuss in the forward half. Here’s why: I imagine the plan internally is for Waite to play in around 14-15 matches assuming he’s available. When he’s not available, that leaves Brown as the sole target forward and I can’t remember the last time only having one has worked for North.

Preuss is considerably more AFL-ready than Larkey at this stage, so by placing the big man in Waite’s vacancy, you solve the problem of playing two rucks in the same side, you have two target forwards and still have enough balance to have the smaller types buzzing around at ground level.

Ruck: Todd Goldstein, Braydon Preuss, Majak Daw, Tristan Xerri, Tom Jeffries

Tall Forwards: Ben Brown, Jarrad Waite, Mason Wood, Nick Larkey

Moving anti-clockwise, you’re likely to see four or five of the half forwards in the side each week. We shouldn’t underestimate how much is asked of the players here. When Leigh Adams was at the club he’d explain how he believed it was the toughest position to play at North. This was largely due to the two-pronged expectation of needing to cover a lot of ground while also being able to read the game better than most.

Watch closely when you’re at a game. You’ll see one of the half-forwards normally start up on a wing at a centre bounce before pushing towards the ball and then into the forward 50. If the centre bounce goes into the defensive half, the half forwards are required to push up and help swarm to create a turnover, all while those in front of the ball still have to help keep a forward structure.

When the ball is in dispute in the forward half, it’s their responsibility to create the pressure to keep it locked in, chip in on the scoreboard with a goal a game if possible, and then if the opposition gains possession, North’s half-forwards have to stop the ball getting into the hands of the prime movers. And did I mention they’ll also be expected to spend some time in the midfield rotations?

Atley’s role looks to have been locked in after an impressive second half of 2017. The basic numbers don’t jump off the screen at you, but he played his role, delivered the ball well inside 50 and added some line-breaking ability, which would be exactly what was asked of him.

Ideally by the end of the year, Simpkin and Garner will have moved over to the midfield rotations full-time, or as close to it as the current game allows.

You could see Garner growing with each week last season as he finally had an extended run at senior football. In Round 22 he hit 90 percent game time – a career high – and he responded with 24 disposals, six marks, five inside 50’s and two goals. It’s a promising sign that he can put up good numbers and find plenty of the ball – he has all the attributes for a modern midfielder if he can stand up to the physical demands of playing there week-in, week-out.

There is definite depth in numbers here, which will make it an interesting follow to see which combination of players is settled on first for Round 1.

Half Forwards: Shaun Atley, Jy Simpkin, Taylor Garner, Kayne Turner, Nathan Hrovat, Cameron Zurhaar, Jed Anderson, Gordon Narrier, Oscar Junker

The midfield is going to be the most fascinating part about North this year. The unit is going to play differently – it has to play differently. It’s nothing but questions without answers at this stage:

Midfield: Shaun Higgins, Ben Cunnington, Jack Ziebell, Ben Jacobs, Trent Dumont, Luke Davies-Uniacke, Paul Ahern, Declan Mountford, Kyron Hayden

Outside Midfield: Luke McDonald, Billy Hartung, Josh Williams, Will Walker, Mitch Hibberd

Finishing up with the defenders, the sheer numbers under the key position post jumps out at you immediately.

With Scott Thompson so close to not being offered a new contract at the end of last season, it appears the club is banking on one of Durdin, McKay, Nielson or Daw to emerge as a replacement this season, and then take the spot for 2019 and beyond.

Nielson is an intriguing case study. Not only was he miles behind everyone at the start of 2017, he was almost in a different postcode. Then out of nowhere, he emerges to the point where he’s beating Robbie Gray in one-on-one ground contests and earning compliments from an opposition coach.

But he’s only on a one-year deal, a little undersized for a genuine key position post and his disposal by foot is questionable. It means he isn’t suited to a huge range of situations, which in turn limits when he can play.

Turning towards the smaller defenders, and a fit Sam Wright changes the mix immeasurably. He’s trusted to play on small and medium-sized forwards and I’d make the argument he has the best foot skills at the club, which makes him another option coming off the half-back line.

Until Wright’s return to the senior side, I’d expect to see McDonald spend more time off half-back to give another option that is sure of foot. There has been some noise about grooming Clarke as a half-back, but I’m not convinced he has the defensive instincts to play there at AFL level just yet. Take this play from the JLT Series clash against Melbourne for example:

Let’s not make a mountain out of a molehill from one small incident, but let’s also agree it’s not the work of a player comfortable as a defender. Ultimately everyone knows Clarke’s natural position is in the midfield, and if getting a few extra games into him here helps in the long run, then overall, it’s a win.

Tall Defenders: Robbie Tarrant, Scott Thompson, Ed Vickers-Willis, Sam Durdin, Ben McKay, Daniel Nielson, Majak Daw, Declan Watson

General Defenders: Marley Williams, Sam Wright, Jamie Macmillan, Ed Vickers-Willis

Half Backs: Jamie Macmillan, Luke McDonald, Sam Wright, Ryan Clarke, Mitch Hibberd, Alex Morgan, Thomas Murphy

So that is that for the first version of the 2018 depth chart. Feel free to share the link around to get the word out, drop a line in the comments or subscribe to the blog via email on your right. We’ll be back early next week with the first post in what I hope will be a long-running series, that also has nothing to do with the current playing list.

Until next time.

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