2022 Team Tiers

The concept is simple, so let’s get straight into it and sort all 18 teams.

But Ricky, why sort teams into tiers and not a ladder like normal people? Well, two reasons:

a) In my mind, some of the teams are so evenly bunched it’s impossible for me to split them before the season starts.

And:

b) I’m terrible at ladder predictions. Genuinely useless.

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Tier 1: The Elite

Melbourne & Brisbane

No prizes for guessing why Melbourne is here – they’re the reigning premiers, with a list in its prime.

It’s Brisbane’s placement which I want to discuss a little more. Last year, everything that could go wrong did, and they still finished with a 15-7 home and away record.

In particular there was an 11-week period, between their slow start and the loss of Eric Hipwood, where the Lions were just blowing doors off teams.

10-1, with an average winning margin of more than six goals. Their only loss was to Melbourne, and even there they led by 20 points at half time.

Hipwood’s loss, among others in September, proved a bridge too far. Yet they were only a point away from a preliminary final against Port Adelaide, a side they’ve had the wood over for years.

Flash forward to 2022 and Brisbane have deepened their midfield rotation, giving them a variety of looks to throw at opponents. Their forward setup is always threatening, and they’ve had a whole summer to game plan with Darcy Fort as a placeholder until Hipwood’s return.

Harris Andrews should be much better than his 2021 output, and ideally there’ll be more than nine games from Darcy Gardiner, which in turn unlocks matchup flexibility with him and Marcus Adams.

Saying a team is ‘primed’ is a bit of an intangible, but that’s what Brisbane looks like to me.

Now after all that, watch them lose on Saturday night.

Tier 2: The Gatekeepers

Port Adelaide & Western Bulldogs

As I noted in the Preconceived Notions post, it’s hard to see the Bulldogs slipping too far given their embarrassment of offensive midfield riches. It’s a high floor.

The issue is whether the Bulldogs’ forwards can score often enough to propel them into the elite tier. Jamarra Ugle-Hagan doesn’t appear ready to contribute just yet, Sam Darcy is injured – not that anyone should have put pressure on a first year key position player anyway – and Josh Bruce is out for most of the home and away season.

It leaves an awful lot of pressure on Aaron Naughton and wherever Luke Beveridge’s magnet spinning lands from week to week.

Just in case this sounds too negative, it’s important to note this is literally the difference between good side and premiership contender. There are worse places to be.

Meanwhile, Port Adelaide are simultaneously in a promising place for their list build and a prime target for lazy headlines.

By the end of this year Zak Butters is likely established as a first-choice on baller, Connor Rozee their best small forward, Mitch Georgiades a 40-goal-a-season player, further games into Lachie Jones, glimpses from Josh Sinn, and promising campaigns from another half a dozen players.

Yet because of natural age related slippage from veterans, the win-loss record won’t look too different from 2021, with every chance of it being a little worse. If that’s not the perfect recipe for think pieces which are basically concern trolling, then I’m not here.

Regardless, there’s little to worry about with Port Adelaide. They’re on the right track.

Tier 3: Upper Midcard

Geelong, Richmond, Sydney … Carlton

Might as well start with the team which stands out here.

Compared to last season, I’m high on Carlton. Whether the improvement is worth two, four or six wins after an 8-14 record in 2021, who knows.

But they have the top tier talent, and as I mentioned in the pre-season Notebook, are finally attempting to play a defensive style which fits in the current day AFL. The ingredients are there for a rise.

If I were braver, I’d pull Geelong down into the next tier. Although I’m expecting a slight slide after last year’s efforts as Father Time lurks ominously, there’s still too much of a home ground advantage and top level talent to help keep their heads above water. Surely.

For Sydney, backing up their 2021 with a consolidation year will prove they belong in the upper half. Early signs look good with Paddy McCartin strengthening their key defensive stocks, and Jordan Dawson’s departure should allow some of the younger ball movers to flourish further; Dylan Stephens looks to be the main beneficiary to start.

And, again, it’s Sydney, which means the infrastructure is always there. They won’t beat themselves and they’ll pick up a couple extra wins purely from being better prepared than their opposition. It’s the type of club who use their narrow finals loss to build, rather than take a step back.

All the above leaves one more team. Richmond could quite easily be up or down a tier within a month, and neither would be surprising.

Three tall forwards could click spectacularly and late-career Jack Riewoldt feasts on the third best defender each week.

Or alternatively, a change in offensive style could cause repeated breakdowns when the heat is on. Players second guessing themselves under pressure leads to many an anguished scream in the stands.

Attempting to thread a needle from one era to the next at the same time makes Richmond arguably the most fascinating team in the league to start 2022.

Tier 4: Midcard

Essendon, Fremantle, GWS, St Kilda

There are positives for each team in this quartet. It was tempting at various stages to bump any of the Bombers, Dockers, Giants and Saints up a tier, but ultimately their holes mean they settle in the midcard.

Fremantle are a team I desperately want to buy stock in given the talent across all lines, but there are too many unknowns to do so comfortably. Can they get through a year without injuries every time a player turns their head sideways? What will their midfield look like without Adam Cerra, and David Mundy a couple of months away from turning 37?

Michael Walters is 31 and coming off a below par season by his standards – how much of his prime form is he capable of recapturing? Can the team generate more high quality scoring shots, improving on last year’s 17th ranked goals per inside 50 percentage (19.5%)?

Essendon are a paradox. The faster the better offensively, yet that exposes holes defensively; holes which appear patched when things slow down.

A midfield capable of tearing sides apart with breathtaking quarters of play, but also one which can be bullied by bigger bodies from time to time. Younger players given heavy responsibility across all lines, which naturally means fluctuations in form.

And the thing about all of that? It’s perfectly OK! No-one should be expecting Essendon anywhere near the finished article at this point. There’ll be plenty more discovery in 2022.

GWS consistently feel like a team less than the sum of their parts. One week they’ll look like a side which has top-four potential, others you’re staring at the TV wondering whether they met each other that morning. Sometimes it even happens on the same day, like when they came back from five goals down in the last quarter to draw against North Melbourne.

If St Kilda get quality seasons from their line breakers – not something they have in plentiful supply – they’ll pop up a tier.

Without it, they’re too easily constrained; one-paced and one-dimensional. For all the questions around teams in Tier 3 and 4, the Saints’ path is probably the easiest to understand.

Tier 5: On their own

West Coast

The only thing preventing me from putting West Coast in the final tier is all their prior accomplishments with (most of) this list.

Nothing has gone right for them so far, and even when it looked like they’d caught a major break with Jack Darling returning, he goes and puts himself straight on the injury list.

Sums it up.

Tier 6: Developing

Adelaide, Collingwood, Gold Coast, Hawthorn, North Melbourne

I’d be surprised if anyone else was surprised by the teams in this tier.

Each team here naturally has flaws, but importantly it feels like all five know exactly where they’re at and aren’t rushing ahead of schedule.

Here’s a fun thought experiment – of Adelaide, Collingwood, Gold Coast, Hawthorn and North Melbourne, which team will be best set up for the future by the end of Round 23, 2022?

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