One of the advantages I have in giving you fantasy coaches out there advice on who to pick up is being able to watch player popularity in the FanFooty Fanplanner feature, which is now running hot with coaches testing out different plan teams in preparation for the 2009 season using approximations of their actual prices and salary caps for the Dream Team and Super Coach competitions. While I understand that privacy with these teams is very important – I wouldn’t publish any one individual’s team, for instance, or hint that any one person has a particular sleeper on their team – I believe it is ethical for me to gather general trends from watching the mixes of players that coaches are picking in their plan teams.
The first trend I’ve noticed is that coaches are being conservative with their backlines, loading up with safe premiums and very few rookies in their 22s. Jack Grimes is about the only kid that fantasy coaches are prepared to start from round 1. This is highly understandable given the shenanigans that went on at the top and bottom ends of the defender lists during 2008, and I think it’s pretty prudent. As it turned out this year, I think there is a lot more value outside the backs at the rookie end of the pricing scale for the 2009 season. This means that plenty of coaches are loading up on mid-price defenders and looking for keepers with value, which means there’s a lot of Xavier Ellis, Nick Malceski, Ricky Petterd, Andrew Raines, Matthew Egan and Beau Waters. The flipside of this is that very few coaches are prepared to back Heath Shaw to be a keeper this year, and with the emphasis on mid-price improvers there are a few other high-price premiums who are slipping through the cracks: Nathan Bock, Martin Mattner, Peter Burgoyne, Paul Wheatley and Joel Bowden are on the nose big time.
On the back benches, of course, there is a lot more reliance on draftees, but even here coaches are looking for second- or third-year players for fear of being left bereft of starters. Alex Rance is a name I didn’t expect on top of this list, but he’s there just ahead of the aforementioned Egan. I think the bench is more Egan’s true position in DT since his career average is no better than 40-ish, but I’m slightly surprised at Rance’s popularity given how the Tigers’ backline has solidified without his presence.
The name at the top of the starting midfielders list should be no surprise: Daniel Rich looks to be a ready-made footballer and if the Dockers pick him up as expected, he’ll step straight into a side crying out for more Rhys Palmer types. Just behind him in popularity is Paul Hasleby, predictably, but it shocks me that Mark Coughlan is third, with the top three being streets ahead of anyone else on the list. Cogs, while a fine footballer in his day, is coming off a terrible injury history of double knee reconstructions and as we remember from the days of Josh Francou, bargain basement fantasy prices are all very well but he’s not likely to be much more than bench fodder, even if he does manage to play enough games to make you enough cash cow money. Training and pre-season match reports of Coughlan’s progress will be keenly pored over by fantasy coaches in early 2009, undoubtedly. Other names high on the list include potential premiums coming off injury-riddled 2008s – Jed Adcock, Jordan Lewis and Brent Reilly – plus a number of overpriced premiums much lower than are probably warranted. Gary Ablett jnr is the most popular 100+ premium at #7 with Kane Cornes and Jimmy Bartel inside the top 12. Many coaches are prepared to take a chance that first-round draft picks Bryce Gibbs and Joel Selwood can take the final step to become 95+ averaging premiums. Finally, as you would expect, a number of coaches are prepared to start two rookies in their midfield, with Patrick Dangerfield, Steele Sidebottom and Jack Ziebell prominent.
Those last three names are all in the top five on midfield benches, along with Coughlan who, again, I feel is more suited to this position. The other name is Hamish Hartlett. Quite a few are also looking at Tom Swift, Matt DeBoer and Beau Muston with many other draftees sprinkled among the list.
In the rucks, of course Dean Cox is far and away the most popular name as he should be, named as #1 ruck in well over half of the plan teams. The big shock to me is how popular Hamish McIntosh is at #2, more than doubling the next name on the list. McIntosh is nine times as popular as David Hille, which amazes me. Other proven premiums like Aaron Sandilands, Josh Fraser and Drew Petrie are very thin on the ground. Instead, a surprising number of teams are prepared to start Robert Warnock, with a few more taking a chance that Brad Ottens will return to fitness and fantasy form and Nick Naitanui scraping in at #5 just ahead of Hille. This is a developing situation, I feel, as it will become clear over the preseason that a few established rucks are going to make way for their backups.
On the ruck bench, it’s pretty clear that NicNat is #1, with Tyrone Vickery not all that far behind. A large number of coaches are throwing away their fourth ruck spot on a rookie, with Joel Tippett, Daniel Currie and Max Bailey popular.
In the forwards, Nick Riewoldt and Jonathan Brown are outside the top 10, no doubt reflecting their poor starts to 2008, though Matthew Pavlich‘s more consistent output has him ensconced at #2 as the most-bought true premium. The name at the top of the list is Scott Lucas, another choice which I find a little too aggressive given how poor he looked towards the end of the year and the possibility that his role might change next year as part of Essendon coach Matthew Knights’ youth policy, as I’ve said before in this blog. Shaun Higgins rounds out the top 3, yet another player I’m not all that sure about but whose price puts him well into consideration. Sean Rusling at #4 is also perfectly understandable looking at his basement price. Personally I’m tempering my expectations for Rusling due to my concerns over the Collingwood structure, which is packed to the rafters with small-forward-cum-midfielders who love kicking the ball over tall half-forwards’ heads – call it the Travis Cloke Effect. Lance Franklin and Steve Johnson are solid value-priced premiums, while Jason Porplyzia and Patrick Veszpremi are perhaps not quite popular enough as mid-priced improvers with Des Headland thereabouts as well. On the rookie end, Jack Watts is neck and neck with Chris Yarran to be the most-picked draftee, with Scott Gumbleton further back and Taylor Walker the next best.
Is it just me or are the popular fantasy forward rookies this year going to be a lot taller than normal? Maybe clubs are rating height above a lot of other factors in their draft preparation since the Franklin/Roughead draft was so successful for the current premiers. I don’t like it that much for fantasy, though, since I’m worried that popular forward bench rookies like Watts, Walker, Gumbleton, Rusling and Jarrad Grant are going to be more like Kurt Tippett: i.e., score 10s when in your 22 and 70s when you bench them. It seems like Fanplanner users are also a little worried about this issue, because the most popular bench forward is Yarran, who isn’t even six foot high and looks to be a more dependable Cyril Rioli-type scorer. Trent Hentschel is also a name that is cropping up a lot in this position, though again one should be very wary of his long-term fitness.