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Next draft pool takes shape

Calum Twomey  January 27, 2017 12:08 PM

AFL 2016 U18 Championship - Vic C v Allies

GEELONG, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 29: Lochie O’Brien of Vic Country in action during the Under 18 Championship match between Vic Country and the Allies at Simonds Stadium on June 29, 2016 in Geelong, Australia. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Media)

Each year the NAB AFL Academy squad gives a snapshot of the wider draft pool. 

This year's level two group has spent the past two weeks in America with new head coach Luke Power, being put through a challenging and demanding high performance training camp. 

The 36 players, plus four Irish hopefuls, trained at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, where they were hit with heavy conditioning work, several main training days, and lived like professional athletes.

The 13 clubs that sent recruiters to the US to observe the tour also interviewed every prospect.  

It is a long time until November's NAB AFL Draft, and many things will evolve and develop across the season. But here is an early take on the look of the 2017 draft pool and how it might shape up. 

Is it a better draft than last year?

It's a different looking group to the 2016 crop, which was dominated at the top by midfielders and smaller types. 

Of the top-10 last year, Fremantle defender Griffin Logue was the only key position prospect selected. Expect the make-up of this year to look a little different, with a more varied mix of prospects considered the top bunch and 16 of the 36 academy members standing above 190cm. 

Jarrod Brander and Connor Ballenden are the early standouts as taller types, with Brander's athleticism and versatility a strength and Ballenden a powerful key forward.

Sam Hayes is a ruckman who was the only bottom-ager to make the All Australian side last year, while Joel Garner, a classy left-footer, and Darcy Fogarty, a tough half-forward, bring something different to the table.

Midfielders Jack Higgins, who won the academy time trial in Florida, Lochie O'Brien and Charlie Spargo have runs on the board already, while creative half-back Hunter Clark and exciting forward Jaidyn Stephenson have played quality TAC Cup football already. 

The depth of last year's draft proved reasonably strong but that often relies on players outside of the academy class coming through. What we do know of the 2017 pool is that there is a really good mix of types available to clubs, more so than last year. Clubs are very bullish about the group (and particularly the blend) this year. 

Which states will be dominating the draft?

Victoria tends to represent around half of the draft each year so there would seem no reason that would change this season, particularly with the strength of players in the academy. 

The two Victorian areas – Metro and Country – combined to have 20 players on tour with the academy, with both groups containing genuine top-end talent. It will be interesting to see which (if either) side takes favouritism into the national carnival in the middle of the year. 

South Australia's first pick at last year's draft was Will Hayward, who came from outside of the academy to end up at Sydney. The SA contingent in the academy this year was five prospects, while Western Australia has just two – down on their seven last year. 

If the Allies can spend some time together before this year's championships they should be a good show for the division one title given their presence in the group. NSW-ACT has four players involved in the academy program, with Queensland having four players selected and Dominic Grant the Northern Territory's sole representative. 

There is no player from Tasmania in this year's group as the state goes through a bleak patch in top-end talent. 

Who is in the mix to be the No.1 pick?

There's a clear bunch of prospects who have pushed themselves to the top of the bunch to start the year. 

Stephenson has something special about him: he's quick, damaging and exciting, and he kicks goals. He is still wiry but his pace, marking ability and forward craft make him a unique prospect. He's also delivered on the big stage already for the Eastern Ranges so starts the season as a contender for the first pick. 

O'Brien might be the best midfielder in it. He's an excellent runner, has a turn of speed and is a composed left-foot kick. He's working on his inside game, but is a dashing player who likes to have the ball in his hands. A quad tweak in the middle of the camp hindered his training but he's a hard worker who influences games. 

His Vic Country teammate Clark will be an early pick as well. He is tough and unflustered, and hits targets on both of his feet with ease. Clark will probably move into the midfield this year, having shown his best work so far as a half-back. Garner, too, is a flanker who could be in contention given his poise, smarts and elite kicking. 

Ballenden and Brander are the talls who are in the mix at this stage. Ballenden only needed a couple of pack marks in the NAB All Stars game on Grand Final morning to show why the Brisbane Lions would be excited about him joining the club as an academy pick, while Brander (at this stage) is a member of the GWS academy.

Fogarty is also one to watch after really impressing in America with his tough streak, aggression and smarts.

All of those names have been raised as possibilities, but it's also worth remembering 2016 No.1 pick Andrew McGrath wasn't in the academy and neither was Tim Taranto, who was taken at pick No.2. 

What about the father-sons and northern academy players?

Patrick Naish, the son of former Richmond and Port Adelaide player Chris, is the only father-son prospect in the national academy. Naish is lightly framed and couldn't break into Vic Metro's under-18 side last year, but runs well with the ball and has a penetrating kick. 

The Tigers have been working closely with him for a couple of years, and he is a bubbly, energetic and likable personality.

Spargo was nearly a father-son option for North Melbourne – Paul Spargo played 81 games for the Roos between 1985-92 before nine games with the Brisbane Bears in 1993 – but instead is a member of the Giants' academy after growing up in Albury. 

The AFL is assessing whether to realign the Giants' large academy area, with a decision seeming likely next month. But at this stage, Spargo, ruckman Nathan Richards, midfielder Jack Powell and Brander are the leading Giants academy players. Brander's eligibility is under extra scrutiny, with the League a chance to rule him out of the Giants' grasp for geography reasons. 

The Lions will get a real boost by attaining Ballenden through their local academy, and they also have access to promising half-back Jack Clayton. After success with top academy picks in recent years, Gold Coast and Sydney don't at this stage look likely to have any top-end academy products.