2008 AFL preseason and rookie draft review

Of course Ben Cousins is getting all the headlines, and rightfully so with the Tigers jumping into the three-ring circus that Cousins’ life has been for years. However, fantasy coaches sifting through the 81 picks in the 2008 preseason and rookie drafts looking for value may end up taking more notice of other, less infamous players.

You can look no further than the three preseason draft picks made just prior to Cousins at #6 to see a lot of fantasy potential. You can probably swerve past Josh Carr at #2 and forget about archetypal project player Liam Jurrah at #1, but Hayden Skipworth going to the Bombers, Chris A. Johnson to Carlton and Tom Rockliff to Brisbane are all of great interest.

Skipworth is an experienced ex-Crow who the Bombers have obviously picked up to address a perceived lack of experience in their midfield. Most importantly from a fantasy perspective, he will most likely be at bargain basement prices due to not having played at senior level since 2006. With only a single ton and five 90s in 41 AFL games for Adelaide, he’s hardly going to be the next Rhys Palmer, but as a 26-year-old who is well respected within the club after a stint at their Bendigo VFL affiliate, he could become a very important cash cow, especially early in the season.

Johnson fits a mold that fantasy coaches know all too well from this year: a developing rebounding backman who shifts clubs to get better opportunities. Two such players from last year’s preseason draft, Martin Mattner and Brad Symes, were two of the most lucrative mid-price improvers in the league. With Carlton’s depth chart in the small defender position sorely lacking in quality, Johnson could well slot into the Blues’ starting 22 for the full 22 games, as Mattner did in 2008 and as Symes would have if injury had not intervened. Unlike those two, unfortunately, Johnson will be priced rather highly at averages of 76 in Dream Team and 78 in Super Coach, but he’s the sort of player who could step up to premium status and thus should be bought in the expectation of being a keeper.

Rockliff is not a recycled player like the other two, but I include him as being of interest purely because the Lions still haven’t really worked out their small forward structure, and I have a feeling that new coach Michael Voss is going to give local kids like Rockliff a fair go. He’ll probably post some solid numbers in the NAB as Brown and/or Bradshaw are rested, so he won’t be a sleeper, but he’s worth watching as a downgrade target later in the season.

So, onto Cousins. History from earlier in this preseason has shown that fantasy coaches are quite prepared to take the risk on him in their Fanplanner teams, but let me sound a word of warning. This is a player who should be considered about as injury-prone as Paul Chapman. Chappy has been bypassed by the vast majority of coaches this preseason due to multiple hamstring pulls during 2008, making him supremely unreliable for limited-trade competitions despite a stellar scoring record when he does play. Cousins, I think, deserves to be marked down in the minds of fantasy coaches in much the same way, with arguably an even worse record for tearing those problematic hammies than Chappy. The caveat to that is that Cousins was accused of over-training during those injury-riddled periods late in his time at the Eagles… not to mention that his body was dealing with the side-effects of drug addiction. One would hope that the latter would not be a problem in future, but will the Tigers fitness staff be able to stop him pushing his 30-year-old body too hard? I’m not convinced.

As for the rookie draft, it has always been a crapshoot picking a rookie from the start of the year, and most coaches haven’t paid any notice of the list until injuries started to take hold and rookies became serious selection options. This year, however, the rules have changed a lot, in part as compensation for the draft chicanery involved with the introduction of the Gold Coast team. From round 1, as usual, clubs can nominate up to two rookies to play senior games minus however many veterans the have outside their list. The list of clubs and their rookie eligibility, along with my favourites to be nominated, is as follows:

Adelaide: 0 rookies eligible at Round 1 (2 veterans outside list)
Brisbane: 0 (2)
Carlton: 2 (0) – Greg Bentley, Darren Pfeiffer
Collingwood: 0 (2)
Essendon: 0 (2)
Fremantle: 2 (0) – Greg Broughton, Matt DeBoer/Clancee Pearce/Casey Sibosado
Geelong: 0 (2)
Hawthorn: 2 (0) – Cameron Stokes, Haydn Kiel
Melbourne: 0 (2)
North Melbourne: 0 (2)
Port Adelaide: 0 (2)
Richmond: 0 (2)
St Kilda: 1 (1) – Zac Dawson
Sydney: 0 (2)
West Coast: 0 (2)
Western Bulldogs: 1 (1) – Liam Picken

This means that we should spend extra time in the preseason looking at players from the clubs with spots immediately open on their lists. There’s no guarantee that these spots will be filled with nominated rookies, of course. The Bulldogs left two rookie spots for budgetary reasons, and might not be keen to spend extra money on playing Picken by the same token. The Hawks are probably experiencing salary cap pressures already, and given they’re at the top of the premiership clock they may not feel the need to blood youth like they did with Stokes this year – though he’s most likely first cab off the rank if they do go there. I think Dawson is an in-case-of-emergency-break-glass type of draft pick, although with the Saints you can’t trust the fitness of their key talls. Carlton will probably play Bentley and Pfeiffer early, but unfortunately their prices are way above normal rookies due to the games they played last year, all but ruling them out for Dream Team and Super Coach.

Fremantle, who apart from making what I believe will be the wrong decision in drafting Stephen Hill over Daniel Rich have had a quietly excellent series of drafts, are the most interesting club to look at for early rookie games. Broughton, like Hayden Ballantyne, is a proven WAFL veteran who at the age of 22 could very well become a new favourite for coach Mark Harvey, who learned last year not to hold back on playing new draftees as early as possible. Freo’s clean-out of older players in the off season means they don’t need to worry at all about paying extra for nominated rookies, so there’s every chance that they would also use their second rookie nomination spot in the first half of the season as well. They rookied three players who attracted a lot of pre-draft interest due to solid performances at the under 18 championships this year, in Clancee Pearce, Matt DeBoer and Casey Sibosado. I suspect Broughton is a front runner for the first spot but the other is up for grabs, so watch training reports and preseason games to see which of these puts their name in front of the proverbial selectors.

As for the rest, we’ve got all preseason and probably up until round 11, when an extra rookie nomination spot becomes available for all clubs, to assess their fantasy potential. So many names to keep track of, so keep watching this blog for names to bob up as the next Austin Wonaeamirri or Jake King!