A preview of the 2023 AFL free agents exposes the growing trend of ‘pre-agency’, with clubs trying to tie up their young stars before they can sample the open market.
After eight years at one club a player can seek free agency – either restricted, if they’re in the top 25 per cent of earners at the club, or unrestricted – but teams are looking to sign their biggest players the year before that.
It avoids the will-he-or-won’t-he debate that rages during a player’s free agency year, and allows greater security for both parties if the deal is right.
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But it also means the 2023 free agent list includes just a handful of top young stars, such as Tom Doedee (Adelaide), Eric Hipwood (Brisbane), Darcy Parish and Mason Redman (Essendon), Ben McKay (North Melbourne) and Jade Gresham (St Kilda).
The list could’ve been enormous, with players from the 2015 draft going on the market, but some of the biggest names like Clayton Oliver (Melbourne), Callum Mills and Tom Papley (Sydney), Charlie Curnow and Harry McKay (Carlton)
Alternatively players and clubs can seek to trade players in their pre-agency year, as happened with Jacob Hopper’s move from GWS to Richmond, in order to get a better trade return than the compensation pick they’d receive for the player walking in free agency.
Foxfooty.com.au analyses the top free agents on the market for 2023 and looks at the unconfirmed list below.
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Matt Crouch (Adelaide Crows)
Much of Matt Crouch’s future will likely depend on how many senior games he plays for Adelaide in 2023. There was interest from rival clubs this trade period but Adelaide ultimately opted to hold him to his contract with no standout offers emerging. Matthew Nicks has dropped Crouch more than once and seems to be set on a midfield brigade without him. He’s still just 27 and a former best and fairest winner and racks up the football at will, which was on display during the 11 senior games he played this year. Nicks clearly wants Crouch to add some more tricks to his game, but whether he actually can do that is another question. How he fares in 2023 will be a topic of intense interest in South Australia.
Tom Doedee (Adelaide Crows)
He is viewed as a future captain but as Port Adelaide saw with Dougal Howard, impressive young defenders who lead the side at an early age aren’t sure things to remain at the club. As one of the best backs on the market, Doedee is sure to gain some interest. Turning 26 before the season begins, Doedee has clear links to Geelong – he grew up in Lara and went to St Joseph’s around the same time as the Cats’ Jack Henry – but there’s been no real chatter about an exit yet. He has played 71 career games across five seasons, having spent plenty of time in the SANFL early in his stint in Adelaide, and was the 11th-ranked key defender in the league this year by Champion Data.
Eric Hipwood (Brisbane Lions)
Hipwood’s progression has been gradual, but at 25 he is likely entering his best years as a key position forward. He’s still yet to better his 2018 tally of 37 goals, but he finished the season strongly, kicking three goals in the elimination final, four goals in the semi-final and then two goals on a rotten night in the preliminary final. All the attributes are there for Hipwood to be a marquee forward. More importantly, new recruit Jack Gunston only has so many years left in him, while Joe Daniher will be 29 when next season gets underway. Hipwood will only grow in importance as that duo declines.
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Jack Crisp (Collingwood)
He may’ve played 12 games for Brisbane, but there aren’t many players at Collingwood who are as heart-and-soul as Jack Crisp. He won’t hit 30 until the end of next season, but age doesn’t seem to be an issue for Crisp, who has now won back-to-back best and fairest awards at the Pies. Crisp simply doesn’t miss games of football and is one of the most consistent players in the league. Clubs in the premiership window would be silly not to at least ask the question of Cripps beyond 2023, but he is ingrained in Collingwood and appears to be lapping up life under Craig McRae. That, coupled with a relatively thin midfield brigade, makes Crisp a very valuable commodity for Collingwood.
Darcy Parish (Essendon)
Parish’s huge disposal counts and breakout 2021 season, which saw him finish fifth in the Brownlow and earn his first All-Australian blazer, arguably make him the biggest name on the free agency market heading into 2023. But he slipped from that high mark in 2022, failing to have as much of an impact on games, though it must be said few Bombers did their reputations much good this past year. The former No.5 draft pick had some interest from Geelong before his big year in 2021, given he’s from the area, and while an exit would be very damaging to Essendon they would surely receive first-round comepensation.
Mason Redman (Essendon)
Redman’s loss may not have been a big blow prior to a couple of years ago, but he has since become one of Essendon’s best players, culminating in a brilliant 2022 season that saw him finish fourth in the side’s best and fairest count. He came along in leaps and bounds this season and was voted both the side’s best clubman and most improved awards. In a side where defensive integrity is hard to come by, Redman is one of the reliable contributors in the back half. To lose him would be a bitter blow after the time they’ve put into him but it also means Redman has raised his value at the perfect time to get a large, new contract.
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Brayden Fiorini (Gold Coast Suns)
He was linked to Collingwood, but ultimately the Pies secured Tom Mitchell’s services and didn’t need Fiorini, who plays a similar role to the former Brownlow medallist. At his best, Fiorini is an accumulator who can apply pressure on the inside, but he has found himself out of the senior side often in recent years under Stuart Dew. Clubs have had success bringing in Suns talent for little cost (Jarryd Lyons and Will Brodie key among them) and Fiorini could easily fit that bill under the right circumstances.
Harry Himmelberg (Greater Western Sydney)
Originally a first-round pick out of the Giants Academy, Himmelberg is exactly the type of player the club needs to be keeping – a home-grown talent. With no go-home factor to worry about they’re every chance of doing so, and while the Giants are expected to pick up Aaron Cadman in the draft, Himmelberg remains a crucial forward cog. He finished third on the team for goals (22, behind Jesse Hogan and Toby Greene) and equal-first for marks in 2022. But as we’ve seen with players like Daniel McStay, forwards in free agency can command a pricetag that’s larger than their reputation, given their scarcity.
Ben McKay (North Melbourne)
In a side that has seen so much talent walk out the door or not perform to expectations, McKay has been a shining light at times for North Melbourne. He has been a brilliant one-on-one defender in a side that concedes a huge number of inside 50s. David Noble tried to swing him forward late in his tenure, but he is well and truly more at home in the defensive 50. Robbie Tarrant being traded to Richmond has only placed even greater importance on McKay’s role. At 24 years of age, he is a key position pillar that the Roos can build their side around along with Nick Larkey at the other end. He had a rotten 2022, but he wasn’t the only one in that side to fall under that category. He should bounce back in earnest next season and is a vital part of the club’s future. The sooner they secure his signature, the better.
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Riley Bonner (Port Adelaide)
It was a bit of a surprise Bonner didn’t leave the Power this past trade period, with his manager David Trotter confirming the club was open to dealing him during the Trade Period. He never ended up being used as the steak knives in the Jason Horne-Francis move, as was mooted, but either way the 2015 No.37 draft pick looks up for grabs. Having played 82 games in seven seasons Bonner has fallen down the pecking order at halfback behind Kane Farrell and Jase Burgoyne, while Xavier Duursma and Miles Bergman would be blocking him on a wing. So while he’s useful depth it’s clear Port Adelaide wouldn’t be desperately trying to keep him once he hits free agency at the end of next season.
Nathan Broad (Richmond)
At 29, Broad is in career-best form at the Tigers and was remarkably durable in a back six that struggled to remain fit throughout the season. He and Dylan Grimes are both free agents at the end of next season. There was speculation back in 2020 about a possible trade interstate, but Broad stayed put and continues to perform at a high level. He finished 10th in the best and fairest count this year and still has plenty to offer. Tim Taranto and Jacob Hopper’s arrival, coupled with the one-year contract extensions for Jack Riewoldt and Trent Cotchin, means he’ll be around for one more flag tilt. Whatever happens after that will be interesting, with clubs sure to at least ask the question.
Jade Gresham (St Kilda)
After a wretched run with injury, Gresham showed Saints fans what they’d been missing out on with a great comeback in 2022. He played 18 games before injury struck and cut his season short. His first half of the season in particular was brilliant, with the 25-year-old showing dare and X-factor in the side’s midfield-forward mix that it desperately needed. Gresham would have a lot of currency on the open market, but the Saints would be desperate to keep him at Moorabbin given few in the competition have his skillset, let alone the need for some gamebreakers at St Kilda. Had Jordan De Goey been traded to St Kilda he may well have played a role almost identical to Gresham’s. The fact they didn’t land De Goey makes Gresham all the more vital.
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LIST OF 2023 AFL FREE AGENTS (Yet to be confirmed by AFL)
*Can qualify as a restricted free agent, as they’re in their 8th or 9th year of service, but only if in the top 25% of payments at the club
GOLD COAST SUNS
GREATER WESTERN SYDNEY
WEST COAST EAGLES