The 2021 AFL season is beginning to heat up, with the ladder beginning to take shape and teams jostling for spots in both the top eight and the top four. With every passing week it feels like wins are increasingly valuable, and moments of individual brilliance can make or break a team’s season. With that in mind, these are the top five players to keep an eye on as we head towards the business end of the season.
1. Patrick Dangerfield
It’s no secret that the Cats’ recruitment of Jeremy Cameron, Shaun Higgins and Isaac Smith in the off-season was an all-out attempt to win a flag, and the Betway odds for Geelong to win the Premiership in 2021 suggest they have every chance of doing just that. They are as stacked with talent as any team in the league this year, but the most talented of them all has had a tumultuous season so far, and they will need every bit of Patrick Dangerfield’s explosive, line-breaking ability if they’re to go one better than last year. The 2016 Brownlow Medalist played just two of the Cats’ first 12 games this season, missing three through suspension and the rest through injury, but if he can return to anywhere near his best, Geelong will be tough to stop.
2. Christian Petracca
What a couple of seasons this man has had. The number two pick from the 2014 draft endured plenty of criticism from frustrated Demons supporters over the first five years of his AFL career, but a move to the midfield in 2020 saw him realise the potential which has always been so evident. He has taken it to another level still in 2021, dominating in a way that few others in the league are capable of, and he has been a major reason for the Demons’ ascent this year. They look every bit a Premiership contender, and if they do manage to salute for the first time in nearly 60 years, he will be a major reason why.
3. Aaron Naughton
The Astro-Naught has risen to prominence as one of the most lethal forwards in the league over the past couple of years, and he has unsurprisingly improved even further as his Bulldogs have risen up the ladder. The 21-year-old attacks the footy in the air like no other player in the league, crashing packs for fun and ending up at the bottom of them with ball in hand more often than what seems possible. The Doggies move the ball as well as any side in the league, and with players like Naughton deep inside 50 it’s little wonder they want to get it in there so quickly. A constant aerial threat, Naughton is a nightmare for defenders, was vital in the Bulldogs’ hot start to the season, and will be a key cog in their Premiership run this season.
4 .Dustin Martin
It seems to be the same story every season with Dusty: he rolls his way through the regular season, playing well but not spectacularly, and then flicks a switch once we get to the business end of the season. 2021 is shaping up in much the same way. The only player to ever win three Norm Smith Medals, Dusty has been virtually the only top-tier Tiger to escape injury so far this season, and would likely be right up there in the Jack Dyer Medal count as Richmond’s best player. As we all know, however, he has another gear to go to. The Tigers have looked vulnerable this year, albeit in a large part due to injury, but we’ve said that before only to end up with a proverbial egg on our collective faces when Dusty turns it on in September. If Richmond manages to make it four Premierships in five years this season, it would be no surprise for Dusty standing on the podium with his fourth Norm Smith.
5. Buddy Franklin
Buddy captures the attention of the footballing public like virtually no other player in the league, and even at the ripe old age of 34 he has shown this season that he still has a bit of gas left in the tank. Injury has plagued him this year as it has in recent seasons, but he kicked 24 goals in his first eight games of 2021 to remind everyone not to write him off just yet. If Buddy can get healthy he has a chance of kicking his 1,000th AFL goal this season, and his presence will hugely increase the chances of the vastly improved Swannies not just making the finals, but causing a few headaches once there.
With so much talent in the league, there are plenty more than the above five players capable of making a massive impact in the lead-up to the AFL finals this year. The aforementioned, however, can take the game away from the opposition like few others, and with all of their teams likely to be competing in September, expect them to be the subject of plenty of headlines over the coming months.