Ready to launch: Every club’s young gun set to explode in 2023

With most clubs calling back their first-to-fourth-year players to begin pre-season training on Monday, we’ve nominated a player from each team in that age bracket who looks set to have a huge 2023.

ADELAIDE

The Crows bolstered this age bracket considerably this off-season with big-name recruit Izak Rankine, who crossed to West Lakes after four years with Gold Coast. After sitting out the entire 2019 season, the extremely talented small forward has been slowly building, and showed more glimpses of his enormous potential in 2022 than at any time in his fledgling career. He had his best year last season, averaging 13 touches and kicking 29 goals. But he’s still only just scratched the surface on what he is fully capable of, and a 40-goal season should be his aim for 2023 at a minimum.

Izak Rankine returns to Adelaide amid huge expectations.Credit:Getty Images

BRISBANE LIONS

It’s been a meteoric rise for 22-year-old Keidean Coleman, who has quickly become an integral part of the Lions’ back line. He had a breakout 2022, averaging 18 touches and six marks a game, ranking him sixth and second respectively at the club. And given he is such a superb user of the ball, he is an incredibly impactful player. With 41 senior games now under his belt, Coleman is ready to take the next step in his evolution, and don’t be surprised if he features in the 44-man All-Australian squad.

CARLTON

A model of consistency since beginning his career, 2018 No.1 draft pick Sam Walsh is already one of the very best midfielders in the competition, and at just 22, his best years are still ahead of him. That’s a scary thought considering he racked up 30 Brownlow votes in 2021 to finish fourth, and picked up another 14 last season, playing second fiddle to his captain and medal winner Patrick Cripps. Walsh averaged 32 disposals and 21 uncontested possessions last season, ranking third and first in the league respectively. There is no ceiling on what he can achieve, and seeing him emulate Cripps’ Brownlow triumph next year wouldn’t come as a shock.

COLLINGWOOD

Rising Star winner Nick Daicos produced one of the best rookie years in VFL/AFL history in 2022. The prodigious father-son pick burst onto the scene to play a pivotal role in the Magpies’ fairytale run to a preliminary final. Playing as an attacking defender, the 19-year-old led his club for disposals, finding himself involved in numerous surges forward from the back half. His exquisite foot skills and decision-making were a feature, and if this is just the foundation block of his career, he is set for superstardom in the near future. However, he will be sure to attract more attention in 2023 after being given free rein by most opposition clubs last season. How he copes with that attention will be a fascinating watch.

Nick Daicos looks on the fast-track to superstardom.Credit:AFL Photos

ESSENDON

Raw key defender Zach Reid got a decent taste of senior footy this year, playing seven more games, and while he still appeared to be finding his feet in most of his appearances, he also showed glimpses of why the Bombers took him at pick 10 in the 2020 national draft. Illness and injury have marred his first two years in the AFL, but with Essendon crying out for reinforcements to their key defensive stocks, a full pre-season and a clear run at it could see Reid become a crucial piece of the Bombers’ back line.

FREMANTLE

Much has been made of the exciting young core of players that the Dockers have assembled, but one member of that group who remains somewhat of a sleeper is wingman Nathan O’Driscoll. The 20-year-old had to be patient for his AFL debut, but the No.27 pick from 2020 finally got his chance in round two this year, and he didn’t disappoint. Only a stress fracture of the foot prevented him from playing more than 12 matches, as he quickly showed what a talented player he is, picking up a Rising Star nomination in round 23. He averaged 15 touches a game and kicked 10 goals, and his pace and smarts could soon see him become a weapon.

Sam De Koning was pivotal in Geelong’s premiership.Credit:Getty Images

GEELONG

How Sam De Koning missed out on selection in the 44-man All-Australian squad was one of the biggest mysteries of 2022. Yes, there are always curious calls, but they usually pertain to the final 22. You’d think given the selectors expanded the squad by four this year, they’d be able to avoid howlers. Well, they proved us wrong in the case of De Koning. Forget being one of the best young defenders at the Cats, De Koning is one of the very best defenders in the AFL, full stop. His ability to routinely negate the best opposition key forwards was jaw-dropping, and the fact that he was doing it in what was essentially his first full season made it even more astonishing. The 21-year-old played a huge role in Geelong’s premiership, and if you thought he was good this year, wait until you see him in 2023. A lock for the All-Australian team if he avoids injury.

GOLD COAST

With Rankine having now departed, someone needs to fill the gaping hole left in the Suns’ small forward slot, and that man could very well be Malcolm Rosas jnr. On more than one occasion this year he exhibited attacking flair and an uncanny knack for scoring from a variety of situations and angles. Rosas kicked 14 goals from 15 games this year, including a couple of bags of three, but also averaged three tackles a game. If given the responsibility by coach Stuart Dew to become a key member of their forward line, the 21-year-old could rise to the occasion.

GREATER WESTERN SYDNEY

Leek Aleer might have only played the final four games of his debut season this year, but the young key backman already showed enough in those performances that suggest he has bright future. He seemed to grow in confidence and stature with each game he played, and the Giants will no doubt be confident that he can be a bolter next year and provide his All-Australian teammate Sam Taylor some much-needed support down back.

HAWTHORN

Precocious defender Will Day has “future star” written all over him, but unfortunately for the 21-year-old, his first three years have been interrupted by ankle injuries which have restricted him to just 33 games. When he has had clear run, he has been a bit patchy, but when he turns it on, he is really impressive and exhibits why he can become a key component of Hawthorn’s back line for years to come. After threatening to break the shackles for some time, 2023 could be his time if the stars align.

MELBOURNE

Trent Rivers has quickly established himself as a best-22 player at the Demons after being taken with pick No.32 in the 2019 draft, in what is already looking like a huge bargain. He’s a premiership player, and has already played in five finals from his 52 games. But he mirrored his own team in 2022, as he experienced a slight dip in his output. He only averaged 14 touches a game this year, and if he wants to be regarded as one of the game’s truly high-end young defenders, then he will need to take a leaf out of Coleman’s book and increase that to 18-20. If he can achieve that, he will become one of Melbourne’s most damaging players.

Huge upside: Melbourne defender Trent Rivers.Credit:Getty Images

NORTH MELBOURNE

In what was another wretched season for the Kangaroos, bright spots were few and far between. But amid the gloom, one of those sparks of encouragement was Paul Curtis. The 19-year-old kicked 12 goals from 15 games, and averaged 10 touches (five contested) and three tackles, to provide some life in attack. The talented youngster knows where the big sticks are, as evidenced by his three-goal performance in North’s memorable win over Richmond, and with a bit more direction and leadership around him, he could regularly provide headaches for opposition teams.

PORT ADELAIDE

It was a dramatic and eventful first year in the AFL for Jason Horne-Francis, to say the least. Frustration, ill-discipline, poor body language and even suspension overshadowed the No.1 pick’s debut season at North Melbourne. It all became too much for the teenager, who received his requested trade back home. But beneath all the negative attention he was bringing on himself, there were many times when he showed why he was so highly rated. With his distractions now in the rear-view mirror, the gun midfielder has no excuses at Alberton in 2023.

RICHMOND

Another first-year player who hit the ground running last season was Richmond defender Josh Gibcus. The 19-year-old looked right at home on an AFL field in the pressure cooker that is the back line, playing 18 games including the Tigers’ thrilling finals loss to Brisbane. Gibcus averaged nine touches, three marks and four intercepts, and ranked sixth at his club for contested marks. Has the potential to take up a more prominent role in 2023 with the likes of Dylan Grimes, Robbie Tarrant and Nick Vlastuin all in the twilight of their careers.

Josh Gibcus looks set for more responsibility in 2023.Credit:Getty Images

ST KILDA

Of all the youngsters that new(ish) St Kilda coach Ross Lyon will have at his disposal next year, Mitch Owens may just be the one who wins his heart the most. In just seven appearances in 2022, Owens strongly intimated that he is a serious prospect of the future. He’s tough, reliable and uncompromising – three attributes that Lyon values highly – and based on that alone he could quickly become a permanent fixture in the line-up. He averaged four tackles a game last season, which ranked him third at the Saints, behind only star mids Brad Crouch and Jack Steele.

SYDNEY

With Lance Franklin on his last legs and Sam Reid about to turn 31, the stage is set for promising Swans key forward Logan McDonald to shine brightly in 2023. Has already shown on occasion just how good he can be, most notably in round 12 when he kicked three goals and teamed up with Reid in Franklin’s absence to upset the Demons at the MCG. With another pre-season in the gym under his belt, and the disappointment of being dropped for the grand final fuelling the fire in his belly, the former No.4 pick could be set for a breakout year.

Point to prove: Logan McDonald was left out of Sydney’s grand final team.Credit:Getty Images

WEST COAST

Young ruckman Bailey Williams finds himself in a similar situation to McDonald at the Swans. Superstar incumbent ruckman Nic Naitanui doesn’t have many years left in his spectacular career, and coach Adam Simpson urgently needs a clearly defined succession plan for the role. It usually takes the big blokes a bit longer to develop, but Williams has now had four years in the system, and destiny is tapping him on the shoulder. He wasn’t overly convincing in his first full season in 2022, but Williams now has a golden opportunity to show Simpson that he can be relied upon to carry the West Coast ruck mantle for the next decade.

Towering presence: Sam Darcy.Credit:Getty Images

WESTERN BULLDOGS

Injury meant Sam Darcy’s highly anticipated AFL debut was delayed until very late into the 2022 season, but it was definitely worth the wait. After Daicos stole the headlines for most of the year as the best young player in the competition, Darcy reminded everyone there was another 2021 father-son with huge potential. He seamlessly made the transition to senior level, and in just four games, showed that he can be a potent weapon both in attack and defence. The 204cm swing man has a beautiful pair of hands and his height is going to cause problems for opposition teams for many years to come. The 19-year-old has the potential to be a dominant force as early as next season.

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