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Breaking the shackles: Who is about to be set free at your club?

Staff writers
December 17, 2016 8:17 PM

AFL 2016 Training - Fremantle 141216

Fremantle skipper David Mundy (left) will benefit from the return of superstar Nat Fyfe

AFL.com.au looks at the players at your club who will profit most from new or returning players joining them in 2017 or the injury or departure of others.

Adelaide

With Jarryd Lyons moving to Gold Coast, and Adelaide failing to get a deal done for Carlton star Bryce Gibbs, Riley Knight is poised to play an increased role for the Crows. The speedy midfielder possesses the injection of pace the Crows so desperately need. The 21-year-old played just one game this year after making 10 appearances in 2015. Knight has been in blistering form during the pre-season, blitzing the field to win the club's first 2km time trial for its first-to-fourth-year players. Second-year forward Wayne Milera will also get more opportunity with Charlie Cameron expected to play more time on the wing. - Lee Gaskin

Brisbane

So much has been asked of Dan McStay in his first three years, but he might just get a little more freedom in 2017. With Jack Frost traded in from Collingwood to lock down against the opposition's best forward, watch for McStay to shift forward and be given the licence to play as a primary target there. He was asked to do likewise with almost no help as a second-year player in 2015, but with Josh Schache and Eric Hipwood alongside him, a stronger and wiser McStay is now more ready to flourish in the front 50. - Michael Whiting

Carlton

Speedy small Dylan Buckley had an up-and-down 2016 season as he was regularly switched between defence and attack, but Zach Tuohy's move to Geelong gives him the chance to cement a position in the Blues' backline. Buckley's run and love of taking the game on make him an ideal candidate to replace Tuohy's rebound, with perhaps his biggest challenge being to improve his one-on-one defence. Buckley will face stiff competition to fill Tuohy's shoes, however, with Irish rookie Ciaran Sheehan another contender for the role and veteran Dale Thomas also a chance to spend some time in defence in 2017. Irishman Ciaran Byrne is also expected to return to the backline when he returns from the right knee reconstruction he underwent in July. - Nick Bowen

Collingwood

There will be plenty of pressure on Darcy Moore to deliver and carry Collingwood's forward line in just his third season at AFL level in 2017, particularly with Travis Cloke having departed to the Bulldogs. Moore will remain the Magpies' most potent weapon in 2017, but the return of Jamie Elliott - who failed to play a game last season - from back surgery will be of major benefit. Elliott, who led Collingwood's goalkicking in 2015, is a dangerous commodity, given his ability in the air and at ground level. With Elliott back up and running, opposition teams won't be able to place all their emphasis on stopping Moore. - Ben Guthrie

Former leading goalkicker Jamie Elliott will be back in black and white in 2017. Picture: AFL Photos

Essendon

The reality is that every Essendon player is going to benefit from the return of the 10 senior Bombers who served their anti-doping bans last season. The forward line will be stronger, the backline will be more difficult to penetrate and the midfield will be bolstered. In this way, David Zaharakis might be best placed to benefit from the return of Essendon's key players. Last year was the first time Zaharakis copped a close tag from opposition clubs as they narrowed their attention to the run-and-carry specialist. He struggled with being so closely monitored last season but with Jobe Watson and Dyson Heppell back in the line-up in 2017, it's unlikely Zaharakis will feel the same pressure. Also, the development of youngsters Zach Merrett and Darcy Parish will make for a bigger midfield group with less of a reliance on Zaharakis for outside polish. - Callum Twomey 

Fremantle

After earning his first All Australian guernsey last year and being elevated to the captaincy, David Mundy endured a challenging and frustrating 2016. The Dockers went into freefall and, without superstar Nat Fyfe by his side, the skipper struggled to lead his team out of the mire. Mundy's impact on games diminished and he averaged fewer disposals, contested possessions, clearances, tackles, inside 50s and goals last season compared to his stellar 2015. But with Brownlow medallist Fyfe coming back from a broken leg and appearing in top shape this pre-season, it should be an easier campaign ahead for Mundy – not to mention the likes of young guns Lachie Weller and Connor Blakely – in Freo's engine room. - Travis King 

Geelong

Nakia Cockatoo has been one of Geelong’s best in the pre-season build-up to Christmas, showing all the signs he wants the midfield minutes available with the departure of Josh Caddy to Richmond. Knee surgery in May made for an interrupted 2016 campaign yielding just ten games, but with enough glimpses of the speed and footy smarts the Cats will need to replace Caddy. Pairing Cockatoo with the maligned Steve Motlop to pinch-hit between the midfield and forward line has the potential to terrify oppositions with the benefit of creating the unpredictability the Cats so desperately lacked late in the season when searching for goals. Motlop, too, appears in good shape and remains a player capable of being the difference at Geelong, which needs him in the midfield. - Peter Ryan

The return of Nakia Cockatoo will be a massive boost for the Cats. Picture: AFL Photos

Gold Coast

For so long the burden has been on Gary Ablett to shoulder the Suns' midfield load, but that should no longer be the case. Despite losing Jaeger O'Meara and Dion Prestia to off-season trades, Gold Coast have substantially bolstered their midfield and can ease Ablett back in after his second shoulder surgery. Pearce Hanley, Jarryd Lyons and Michael Barlow already come with hardened bodies, while draftees Will Brodie and Jack Bowes can also offer support. Throw in some midfield minutes for 2014 best and fairest David Swallow, who returns after missing a year, and Ablett should spend more time in the forward 50 as a lethal option alongside key talls Tom Lynch and Peter Wright. - Michael Whiting 

GWS

The Giants have had their issues containing true power forwards over the years, so co-captain Phil Davis will enjoy having Aidan Corr back on the field in 2017. The 22-year-old played the first three games of last season but wasn't seen again due to a serious ankle injury. Having Corr back in the 22 will add enormous strength to the GWS back six, and allow Davis the luxury of not battling against bigger opponents every week. With Adam Tomlinson also finishing this season well, Leon Cameron has three tall backs capable of taking on the opposition's biggest monsters inside 50. - Adam Curley

Hawthorn

The departures of premiership stars Sam Mitchell and Jordan Lewis gives Liam Shiels a chance to step up and take command of the Hawks' engine room. With skipper Luke Hodge coming to the end of his career, new leaders need to step up and Shiels is certainly one touted as a future captain. Hawthorn's midfield will take on a new look in 2017 with the additions of young guns Tom Mitchell and Jaeger O'Meara. Shiels' pressure was terrific in 2016, averaging 8.5 tackles per game, but he'll need to find more of the ball next year to help fill the void left by contested-ball winners Mitchell and Lewis. - Nat Edwards

Melbourne

For years, Nathan Jones has been relied upon to provide leadership and inspiration when his team desperately needs it. However, the tide is turning as the Demons continue to invest time into developing a new set of leaders. Yet, with such a young group, the arrival of four-time premiership Hawk Jordan Lewis will be crucial for the team, and, in particular, Jones. Lewis has a good understanding of what success looks like and his role in driving the standards of the group, as well as pushing Jones to be a better leader, will be integral as the club strives to make the finals for the first time since 2006. - Ben Guthrie 

North MelbourneDefender Ed Vickers-Willis has yet to make his AFL debut, but a huge opportunity has opened up for him following Michael Firrito's retirement at the end of last season. Firrito gave North's defence great flexibility for more than a decade with his ability to play on medium and tall forwards and, at 190cm, Vickers-Willis has the physical attributes to perform the same role. An under-18 All Australian in 2014, the 20-year-old has had two shoulder reconstructions since joining the Roos. But he impressed with Werribee in the second half of last season, holding his own when pitted against demoted Bulldogs star Jake Stringer in round 20. Came very close to earning a senior call-up late in 2016 and will look to carry that momentum into next year's JLT Community Series. - Nick Bowen

Port Adelaide

The Power needed another tough inside midfielder to give Ollie Wines some assistance, and they addressed those needs in the draft with the selection of Sam Powell-Pepper. The East Perth product has the physical attributes ready to step straight into senior football. While Wines will still do the bulk of the grunt work, having Powell-Pepper to help shoulder the load will allow him to increase his effectiveness. Wines was guilty of turning the ball over too often last season as fatigue crept in to his game. Powell-Pepper and Wines have the potential to be a formidable midfield duo for the next decade. - Lee Gaskin 

Ollie Wines is looking for more support in Port Adelaide's midfield. Picture: AFL Photos

Richmond

The Tigers have long identified the need for a hard-bodied ball-winner to take the pressure off skipper Trent Cotchin. They thought they'd found the answer last year in Jacob Townsend, but more reinforcements are clearly needed. Enter Josh Caddy and Dion Prestia. Cotchin's career-best 2012 season saw him average 5.27 inside 50s (3.49 since) and 0.82 marks in attack (0.36 since). His ability to push forward has been stunted by his responsibility at the coalface, but Caddy and Prestia will attend their share of centre bounces in 2017. Watch for Cotchin to rotate forward more where he is an underrated mark, quick thinker and dangerous if isolated in one-on-one contests. - Nathan Schmook 

St Kilda

The Saints continued to find midfield time for Jack Billings last season and he averaged 20.2 disposals. It was a frustrating season for the former No.3 draft pick, however, and a growing on-ball division could help him find his niche in 2017. Trade acquisitions Jack Steele and Koby Stevens are big-bodied brutes who will relish the grunt work. While Billings is capable in the contest, his best work is done when he can be creative, kick inside 50 or sniff out a goal. More time across half-forward, getting into dangerous positions, could bring out his best footy. And when he is on-ball, the support cast will be deep. – Nathan Schmook  

Sydney Swans

The evolution of Isaac Heeney began late in 2016, and his permanent move to the midfield will help cover the loss of Tom Mitchell to Hawthorn. Three-time All Australian wingman Dan Hannebery and the unheralded Jake Lloyd could spend more time in the centre square in 2017, leaving Heeney room to move on the wing, where he starred during last season's finals series. The 20-year-old has brilliant hands, a fantastic mark for his size, and magnificent recovery when the ball hits the deck, making him an extremely tough match-up. - Adam Curley

West Coast

Luke Shuey is set for a smoother time in 2017 ... but you could throw in Andrew Gaff, Dom Sheed, Jack Redden, Elliot Yeo, Chris Masten, Lewis Jetta, and Liam Duggan. That's how big an impact recruiting Hawthorn champion Sam Mitchell should have on the Eagles' midfield brigade. Not only will Mitchell take significant heat off his new teammates, but the four-time premiership star's knowledge will be invaluable to an onball division which propelled West Coast to a Grand Final two seasons ago and still has room for improvement. Shuey, especially, should be given more freedom to use his pace with Mitchell and Matt Priddis at the coalface digging the ball out. Spearhead Josh Kennedy and Jack Darling will also be licking their lips at the prospect of some lace-out delivery from one of the best ball-users in the business. - Travis King

Western Bulldogs

By his lofty standards, 2016 wasn't Jake Stringer's best season. He kicked 14 goals less than 2015, and was also down on tackles and disposals. Despite being dropped to the VFL for two weeks late in the season, Stringer was unable to recapture his form. The Bulldogs struggled with their efficiency in attack and were far too reliant on Stringer at times. But the arrival of Travis Cloke is set to change that in 2017. The ex-Magpie will add another dimension to the Dogs' forward line, relieving the pressure on Stringer. If Cloke and Tom Boyd play their roles next season, the 22-year-old will be an even more dangerous proposition for opposition defenders. - Nat Edwards

Jake Stringer will be hoping to return to his All Australian form of 2015. Picture: AFL Photos