Bolters and sliders: Inside the data the 2021 AFL draft

After a lifetime of grind, it’s the shortest wait that feels like an eternity.

For 65 of the most talented young footballers in the country, including a couple more mature-aged talents, the two nights of the AFL draft seem like they last forever.

Some knew that they were going to get chosen at one point or another. A select few, like Nick Daicos and Sam Darcy, even knew which clubs they were going to.

But for many, the wait was excruciating. For those chosen, the eventual ecstasy was joyous to see.

Since the introduction of the draft, the event has morphed from a small-scale gathering at league headquarters to a two-night, made-for-TV event.

The draft isn’t all for show, however. It serves a critical purpose for the 18 AFL clubs. It’s the main way they are able to restock their lists with the best and brightest young talents around.

So what actually went down at the 2021 AFL draft?

Both quieter and busier

Before the draft commenced, the AFL indicted there would be 91 potential picks. In more troubling news for footy fans who like their sleep, the order was updated after the first night to indicate there would be up to 10 rounds of draft picks.

In the end, many clubs passed on their later selections, as expected going into the draft. All up, 65 picks were taken, up slightly on 2020.

Many clubs passed on their later selections to convert the picks into rookie draft selections, which have a lower salary cap charge and a shorter contract length for each selection.

But one part of the night was quieter than normal — the trade table. After as many as 17 live trades two years ago, the 2021 draft saw just 10 trades made. Most of these were quite late in the piece to move picks into next year, rather than larger strategic manoeuvring around dynamic player availability.

A potential trade between Melbourne and Adelaide was dramatically denied, with Melbourne trying to package a pick they were not intending to use (pick 43) to move two spots up in the draft order from 39 to 37.

However, due to some controversial moves in recent years, the AFL instituted a rule where two clubs couldn’t trade the same picks between each other in the same draft year. The AFL denied that trade for that reason.

In the end, Melbourne traded pick 43 for Adelaide’s future third-round selection, getting some value back for the pick.

Traditional states dominate

Darcy Wilmot follow through with a shot for goal as other players watch on
Defender Darcy Wilmot was just one of many Victorian prospects to find a club at the draft.(Getty Images: Martin Keep)

Despite a lack of junior football in Victoria last year due to various COVID-19 outbreaks, Victorian players made up the majority of the draft, as is typical given the populations involved.

In total, 36 players were picked up from Victoria.

There were also the usual number of Victorians taken inside the top 20.

By contrast, the draft was notable for its lack of talent from above the Barassi Line. This was the first draft since 2017 in which no player from outside Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia was chosen in the top 20.

Only one player from NSW/ACT was selected at the draft, GWS Academy member Josh Fahey. There was also one Tasmanian (Sam Banks) chosen at the draft, while the Suns prelisted Bodhi Uwland and Sandy Brock from Queensland and the NT respectively.

Jess Motlop prepares to kick the footy
It was a good night for young Western Australian footballers like Jesse Motlop, who was picked up by Carlton.(Getty Images: Paul Kane)

It was a good year to be a young player from WA or SA as well. Both states provided a comparatively high number of draftees, perhaps buoyed by the extra exposure from the lack of Victorian football.

Players rise and fall

As such an important event in the AFL landscape, there is much speculation about where each player is likely to fall before the draft. In common parlance, they are known as phantom drafts.

Angus Sheldrick prepares to gather the ball while running in space
The Swans’ decision to take Angus Sheldrick at pick 18 was just one of a number of surprises in this year’s draft.(Getty Images: Paul Kane)

The ABC has compiled a variety of these and compared the averages to where players ended up being selected.

For the first 14 picks, the order was almost exactly as expected. Then, West Coast decided to grab young Victorian midfielder Campbell Chesser and shook up the order. The pick of Chesser acted as a starting pistol for the fun to really start.

Mature-age South Australian intercept defender Leek Aleer was then tabbed by GWS about 14 spots earlier than expected. By the end of the first night, surprising selections such Tom Brown, Angus Sheldrick and Kai Lohmann well and truly shook up what was one of the most predictable drafts in history.

The draft was generally heavy on multi-talented midfielders and light on key position players and rucks. Some clubs, drafting for need, initiated runs on players of a certain type.

But for every surprising selection is a player that slides down the order. Prospective top-10 selection Matthew Johnson was invited to the WA live site event on night one of the draft.

This indicated Johnson would at least be chosen inside the top 20. Instead, Johnson had to wait until pick 21, the first pick of night two, to hear his name called out.

Jesse Motlop and Tyler Sonsie represented solid value in the 20s, while Blake Howes, Zac Taylor and Arlo Draper fell further than expected to the middle of the draft.

Zac Taylor puffs out his cheeks as he speeds away from a chaser
Zac Taylor was seen by many as a top prospect, but he slid down the order to pick 44 before the Crows picked up a bargain. (Getty Images: Martin Keep)

The draft featured five father-son selections, five Next Generation Academy (NGA) players and one Northern Academy draftee — roughly one-sixth of the entire draft.

While only three of the NGA players ended up at their nominated club, all bar two pre-tied players (Nick Daicos and Sam Darcy) ended up sliding down the order substantially. In the case of Daicos and Darcy, the Pies and Dogs paid little real cost in the end to match the bids for these top-end players.

In combination, it will heighten speculation about why clubs fail to bid for players, and lead to further calls to reform the father-son and academy-drafting process in future years.

Some players stand out as total surprises. None of the phantom drafts identified Flynn Kroeger and Cooper Whyte (Geelong), Garret McDonagh (Essendon), Harvey Harrison (Collingwood), Eric Benning (Fremantle), Dante Visentini (Port Adelaide) or Luke Cleary (Bulldogs) as likely draft selections.

The clubs that ended up selecting all seven of these players were able to adeptly hide their intentions to the outside world, which might have made it easier to pounce with a later draft selection. All seven of these players were nabbed at pick 48 or later.

The highest-ranked players not drafted were Williamstown’s Fothergill-Round-Mitchell medallist Charlie Dean, overage Northern Territorian Ronald Fejo Jr, and Vic Country midfielder Charlie Molan.

These players, seen as potential top-50 talents by draft watchers, stand a real shot of being picked up by a club as a rookie, either at the rookie draft or in the supplementary selection period.

The long game

In the short term, few players drafted — even at the top end — will likely have an impact on the 2022 AFL season. With most of the players being just 19 years old next season, most will take a few years before their talent shines through.

Patience is required in determining which clubs did well at the draft, and which clubs failed to identify the right talent. Even players who get out to fast starts in their new careers can end up fading out.

But a club that drafts well can set up their future. One good draft class can catapult a good team to a premiership-winning one, which is why every club takes the draft seriously.

So, who won the draft?

Get back to us in 2026.

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