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Surprise packets of 2018

afl.com.au  April 26, 2018 12:04 PM

JLT2: Hendo capitalises on Blues mistake Ricky Henderson was on the end of a handball chain that ended with a goal after the Blues fumbled in the Hawks forward line.

The writers at afl.com.au pick their 'suprise packets' from each club early in the 2018 season.

Adelaide Crows

After only 20 games in his first two seasons with the Crows, there was a sense of the unknown with what to expect from winger Paul Seedsman this year. But the 26-year-old has shaken his injury dramas and locked down a spot in the club's best 22. The former Collingwood winger has made a blistering start, averaging 26.6 disposals and six inside 50s per game through the opening five rounds. Seedsman, who is off-contract at the end of the season, is also leading the competition in metres gained, with a whopping 649m per game. Seedsman managed only a handful of matches for the Crows last season after struggling with a groin injury. He's worked tirelessly to get his body right and undertakes rigorous stretching and pilates before every training session. Along with Seedsman, third-year defender Tom Doedee has been so good Crows supporters have almost forgotten about Jake Lever. Doedee's intercept marking and gritty determination have been highlights of his game. - Lee Gaskin

Brisbane Lions

He was taken with the third overall pick in the 2016 NAB AFL Draft, but the rate of improvement from Hugh McCluggagein his second season has been eye-opening. McCluggage played 16 games last year, and although being rock solid for a rookie season, was hardly dominating. Despite his abundant talent and ability to use the ball cleanly, the skinny teenager was often bumped out of contests. Now, with a second pre-season under his belt, McCluggage is averaging 18 disposals through the first five rounds, including seven contested (up from 4.5 last season). When the game was on the line against Port Adelaide, he coolly sidestepped and snapped a goal deep in the fourth quarter, and also dished to Cam Rayner for a potential match-tying shot at goal against Gold Coast. He is already a midfield mainstay and contributing as such. - Michael Whiting

Carlton

Zac Fisher was unlucky not to win a NAB AFL Rising Star nomination in his debut season last year and the West Australian showed enough to suggest he has a bright future. After an impressive pre-season, he has been one of the Blues' most consistent performers in a struggling team during the opening five rounds. Playing in the midfield, he has provided constant drive with his creative handball and penetrating left boot.  Although small in stature, he is a fierce tackler, always applying pressure to the opposition when he does not have the ball. With Carlton fielding so many youngsters, plenty of responsibility has fallen on its experienced campaigners and Dale Thomas has been one of the better performers playing mainly off half-back. While he is best suited to a forward role at this stage of his career, 'Daisy' has adapted to the team's requirements, providing much-needed leadership and composure. – Howard Kotton

Zac Fisher has stepped into Carlton's midfield with aplomb. Picture: AFL Photos
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Collingwood

The Magpies were roundly criticised last year for their decision to trade a future second-round pick to Sydney in exchange for a fourth-round selection, a future third-round pick and untried two-year rookie Sam Murray. Those critics might well be eating their words given Murray's hot early-season form and the way he has helped change the dynamics of a previously one-paced team. The 20-year-old has exceeded all expectations and supplied the Pies with some much-needed speed, adventure and kicking penetration from the back half. The left-footer with the take-'em-on attitude has also shown he's a quick learner. Overlooked for the Pies' opening pre-season hit-out because he needed to sharpen up some areas of his game, Murray has been ultra-impressive ever since. He might get caught occasionally but his brave, dash-and-dare style breaks lines and has proven a team-lifter. It sounds crazy, given Murray's inexperience, but opposition teams might need to start planning how to keep him under control. - Ben Collins

Essendon

The Bombers have had a relatively settled line-up for the first five weeks of this year, with Josh Begley perhaps the club's early surprise packet. Few would have predicted in the pre-season that Begley would line up in every game so far this season, but the powerful forward has done that. He presents hard at the ball, is a good kick for goal and kicked the sealer in round one as Essendon steamrolled Adelaide in the last quarter to post a come-from-behind win. Begley will need to continue to build his tank to run out games and push further up the ground, but his stay in the senior side will be beneficial to fast-tracking that. - Callum Twomey   

Fremantle

The Dockers knew just how talented Alex Pearce was when they handed him the Beacon Award as the club's best young player in 2015, however the 200cm defender became a forgotten man when complications with a broken leg kept him sidelined for almost two years. Nobody knew how the 22-year-old would come back this season but Pearce has been a revelation and if the All Australian team was picked now he would have a serious claim for a key defensive post. Pearce has faced some of the AFL's best key forwards in the opening five weeks and only conceded six goals against Charlie Dixon, Joe Daniher, Tom Lynch, Jeremy Cameron and Tom Boyd. Pearce is held in such high regard at Freo he was elevated into the leadership group before the season started, and his likely role on West Coast spearhead Josh Kennedy will be a key to Sunday's Western Derby. - Travis King

Alex Pearce is finally over his injury woes. Picture: AFL Photos
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Geelong Cats

With Harry Taylor (foot) and Lachie Henderson (knee) nursing injuries, second-year defender Tom Stewart is firmly in All Australian calculations. The mature-age Geelong local has patrolled the defence this year, mirroring his mentor Matthew Scarlett with his reading of the play, and even taking on a leadership role in a makeshift defence. With 26 games to his name, Stewart is averaging five more disposals, three more rebound 50s and one more mark per match this season. When the Cats welcome back more experience to their back-half, Stewart's rise will only be further advanced.

Like Stewart, Brandan Parfitt is one of 12 debutants for Geelong since the start of 2017 and turned heads with his performance against St Kilda in round four, claiming all 10 coaches votes. Averaging eight more disposals a game in 2018 compared to his debut season, Parfitt has taken his smart work in traffic to a new level and added outside run to his developing game. - Mitch Cleary

Gold Coast Suns

At the start of the season, Brayden Fiorini was on the edge of the Suns' best 22, but after just five weeks, he's now well and truly entrenched. With 27 disposals, nine marks and two goals, he was a worthy runner-up to Touk Miller for the Marcus Ashcroft Medal against Brisbane on Sunday, continuing his consistent start to the season. Fiorini played 15 games in his first two years – never more than four in succession – and proved more than capable of finding the footy. Still just 20, he already looks more composed at the top level and is averaging 21 touches a game this year. Fiorini has a nice mix of inside and outside play and now looks a long-term midfield solution. - Michael Whiting

GWS Giants

He showed some promise last season before a knee injury ruined his debut game, but not even the Giants would have predicted the breakout form of Jeremy Finlayson in 2018. With Nathan Wilson now at Fremantle and a serious Achilles injury likely to sideline Zac Williams for most of the season, Finlayson has seized his opportunity to play regular senior footy and become an important member of the backline. The tall defender has used his brilliant left foot to great effect and he sits just behind veteran Heath Shaw for rebound 50s at the Giants, averaging 6.2 per game. The 22-year-old is out of contract at the end of this season and is sure to be in demand from other clubs around the competition if he maintains his form. - Adam Curley

Nathan Wilson's absence in defence has largely been covered by Jeremy Finlayson. Picture: AFL Photos
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Hawthorn

Three Hawthorn imports – Tom Mitchell, Jaeger O’Meara and Ty Vickery – made headlines when they joined the club at the start of 2017. There was also Ricky Henderson, who came across from Adelaide as a delisted free agent, virtually as chump change, yet 27 games later, he is an important member of the midfield mix and a weapon with his ability to sneak forward and jag a goal. Perhaps by now many would have thought he'd have been surpassed by one of the younger Hawks, but the 29-year-old averages 21 disposals and a goal a game and is playing too well for one of the emerging midfielders in the VFL to replace him. - Ashley Browne

Melbourne

In the words of backline coach Troy Chaplin, former rookie Josh Wagner has been the Demons' "most consistent" defender over the first five matches of the season. Wagner's ability to play on both tall and small players makes him a versatile option for coach Simon Goodwin. Wagner has the speed and agility to match it with the goalsneaks while, at 189cm, he can also match it with some of the competition's heavyweights and hold his own in marking contests. With the Demons committed to playing a high and aggressive defensive press, Melbourne's coaching staff are fans of having a player like Wagner who can read the ball and position himself accordingly. As Chaplin puts it, Wagner is a player who does not get the plaudits he sometimes deserves: "A lot of people probably don’t realise what he does, because it doesn't always come down to stats. The way we want to play and the system – he hasn't let us down at all." – Ben Guthrie

North Melbourne

Taggers go in and out of vogue in a hurry in the AFL, but the Roos never fell out of love with Ben Jacobs during his prolonged foot injuries. Brad Scott even mentioned Jacobs in the lead-up to a clash with Richmond and eventual Brownlow medallist Dustin Martin last year, saying he'd be the obvious match-up if he wasn't hurt. Well, Jacobs is back now after a 679-day absence between AFL games and has quickly regained his status as the competition's best run-with player. His scalp list in 2018 includes (in order) Gold Coast's Jarryd Lyons, Saint Seb Ross, Melbourne's Clayton Oliver, Blue Patrick Cripps and Hawthorn's Tom Mitchell. Mitchell won fewer than 20 disposals for the first time since wearing brown and gold on Sunday, with Jacobs matching his 19 touches and winning more contested possessions and clearances. Watch out, Ollie Wines and Robbie Gray, because one of you is next on the ex-Power midfielder's hit list. - Marc McGowan

North's Ben Jacobs is tagging opponents out of the game in familiar fashion. Picture: AFL Photos
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Port Adelaide

Defender Riley Bonner had played just four senior games before the start of this season. But the 21-year-old's willingness to take the game on and clean ball use has endeared him to Power supporters. Bonner's skills were on show in the Power's round one win against Fremantle when he racked up 31 disposals to earn the first NAB AFL Rising Star nomination of the year. Bonner's performances have been solid since as he continues to play his role in the Power's back six. There will be pressure on his spot once Jasper Pittard works his way back to full fitness from a calf injury. At 191cm, Bonner is the perfect match-up for medium-sized forwards, while he can also play taller if required. It's his dash through the middle of the ground, ability to burst through congestion and to hit targets with kicks into the corridor that will continue to see him remain in the side. - Lee Gaskin

Richmond

It's been a long road for Reece Conca and it appears as though it's finally coming together for the former first-round draft pick. Injuries have cruelled the West Australian's career to date with his most recent complaint a foot injury that sidelined him for the majority of last year. But, after almost departing Punt Road at the end of 2016, Conca has overcome the disappointment of not being involved in the Tigers' 2017 premiership to enjoy an uninterrupted pre-season and embrace a move from half-back to the midfield. His possessions and his tackles are up, and the fact he's offered the Tigers another midfield option has allowed Dustin Martin to spend more time in attack for devastating results. It's come at the right time for Conca too, with the No.6 pick from 2010 out of contract and set to become an unrestricted free agent this year. -Jennifer Phelan

St Kilda

Small forward Ben Long is one of the Saints' most exciting players and his selection in the team early this season might have been based more on faith than form, after just four games in a disappointing first year. He was dropped for the second JLT Community Series game but was named for round one and has gradually improved since then. The 20-year-old was great in the draw with Greater Western Sydney last Saturday on several fronts. He hit bodies hard, his composure and class were evident on several occasions, and that goal when Long looked like taking a set shot before playing on around Phil Davis on the mark and snapping it home to bring his side within six points late in the game was exceptional. Points for the ingenuity to think of doing it, for his bravery in making the attempt and for stellar execution. - Dinny Navaratnam

Sydney Swans

The Swans have targeted speed and foot skills at the NAB AFL Draft in recent years and while Oliver Florent has both, this season he's showed he has plenty more to offer. The Victorian was impressive in nine games in his debut year, but the lightly built wingman has returned more confident to take the game on in 2018. The 19-year-old's goal to seal the Swans' win over the Western Bulldogs in round four was brilliant, but he's also added a more contested side to his game this year. Florent's pace and ability to use the footy on the outside is his best asset right now, but the Swans will be rapt to see him improving in other important areas as well. - Adam Curley

West Coast Eagles

It's fair to say not a lot was expected from Chris Masten heading into 2018 considering he was dropped three times in the back half of last year and then didn't take part in either JLT Community Series game. However, the 28-year-old was a surprise selection for round one against Sydney and has excelled in a more focused role using his elite running ability to connect defence and attack. Masten started the season strongly with 15, 20 and 18 touches but has gone to another level in the past two weeks, booting two goals from 30 touches in the thumping of Gold Coast and adding another important major from 27 disposals in the grind against Carlton. West Coast's midfield needs everyone contributing to be effective and Masten is certainly playing his role, with his scoreboard impact an added bonus in an engine room that isn't noted for goalkicking output. - Travis King

Western Bulldogs

After starting last season in amateur footy, hard-running forward Billy Gowers fought his way into the Footscray VFL side and did enough to earn a spot on the club's rookie list this year. His two seasons on Carlton's rookie list didn't result in a senior game after he was hindered by injuries and inconsistency, but the 21-year-old has hit the ground running at Whitten Oval. Gowers made his AFL debut in round one and has held his spot since, averaging 10 disposals, four marks, two tackles and kicking six goals. He's hit the scoreboard in each of his five appearances, including two majors against Fremantle last week, and could have kicked bags against Essendon and West Coast but for errant goalkicking. The son of Hawthorn premiership wingman Andrew Gowers has also impressed with his forward pressure and ability to read the ball in the air. - Ryan Davidson