EVERY club wants a key forward like Aaron Naughton or Max King. It is why, in AFL.com.au's list of the 50 most valuable players heading into season 2022, the pair rank so highly.
Western Bulldogs star Naughton and St Kilda spearhead King are in only their fifth and fourth seasons respectively, but the pair carry the responsibility of their forward lines on their shoulders. If not for his season-ending knee injury earlier this month, King's twin brother Ben would have also made the list after his breakout 2021 season in attack for Gold Coast.
The MVP list is based on performance in recent seasons as well as weighing predictions about the year ahead. By the end of this season, Naughton (No.29) and King (32) could be top-15 players.
On Friday AFL.com.au will reveal its full list of the top-50 MVPs in the competition, but this group leads to some key questions heading into the start of the year. Can Brodie Grundy recapture his best? Is Bailey Smith headed for superstardom? Can Travis Boak and Luke Parker keep up their incredible form? Can Patrick Cripps get back to the midfield king of 2019? How valuable are intercept defenders like Aliir Aliir and Jordan Ridley?
The star quality of the competition can be told in the names who missed out. Daniel Rich, Bayley Fritsch, Jarryd Lyons, Jacob Hopper and Tim Taranto can count themselves very unlucky, as can Tom Liberatore, Cam Guthrie, Nick Vlastuin, Mitch Duncan, Callum Mills and Sean Darcy.
Veterans Joel Selwood and Scott Pendlebury were also just outside of the group, while Brisbane bookends Harris Andrews and Joe Daniher didn't make the cut.
Jy Simpkin and Andrew Brayshaw were very close, while younger players Caleb Serong, Zac Bailey, Luke Jackson and Noah Anderson were also considered as we look ahead to the next generation who might be ready to take the mantle in 2022.
But for now, here is the first part of the list of footy's most valuable players ahead of the season.
50 Brodie Grundy (Collingwood)
If his training form over summer is any indication, Grundy might have a season that makes this ranking look way too low. He finished sixth in the Pies' best and fairest but didn't reach the heights of his 2018-19 All-Australian form. He has trimmed down, is covering the ground better and gives the Pies a midfield presence.
49 Bailey Dale (Western Bulldogs)
A surprise packet of 2021, Dale hits free agency at the perfect time. The half-back lifted his game several cogs to be a key playmaker for the Bulldogs and was named an All-Australian for the first time in 2021. Plays on smalls, talls and everything in between and is a trusted source from defence.
48 Bailey Smith (Western Bulldogs)
An emerging superstar of the competition. Hasn't missed a game since arriving at the Dogs at the end of 2018, with his finals series last year catapulting him into the top echelon. He kicked eight goals in the Bulldogs' first three finals and has that terrific speed, endurance, burst combination.
47 Touk Miller (Gold Coast)
A clear standout for the Suns and recently named their co-captain for 2022. Is committed long-term and plays like it, willing himself from one end of the ground to the other and then back again. Upped his game to huge levels last year as one of the competition's leading ball-winners and about to enter his peak.
46 Jordan De Goey (Collingwood)
All eyes will be on De Goey's form this year after his tumultuous off-season and as he reaches free agency for the first time. Averaged 29 disposals in the final nine rounds of last year after being deployed more consistently in the midfield.
45 Jordan Ridley (Essendon)
Ridley is on the verge of stardom. A best and fairest in 2020 and a top-four finish last year and still two appearances short of his 50th AFL game. The poised marking defender will benefit from Jake Kelly's arrival at Essendon and should relish the freedom to go for his grabs and set up the play with his pinpoint kicking.
44 Aliir Aliir (Port Adelaide)
A sensation in his first season at Port Adelaide after being traded by Sydney. Attacking defenders are so valuable in the modern game and Aliir's overhead marking makes him a headache for the opposition as they grapple with his athleticism and movement.
43 Christian Salem (Melbourne)
We have Salem as the best rebounding half-back in the AFL, a jump he took last year as a critical member of Melbourne's premiership defence. Does everything with a matter of ease and style and rarely looks flustered. Distributes the ball as well as anyone out of the back half and competes hard.
42 Rory Laird (Adelaide)
A two-time All-Australian and best and fairest winner, Laird's ball-winning ability should never go under the radar. Averaged 32 disposals for the Crows last season and was a clear standout for them. Tackles hard, fights for the ball and always turns up.
41 Caleb Daniel (Western Bulldogs)
The Dogs' architect out of defence. His importance is seen in some opposition coaches sending defensive forwards to shut down his influence in the backline. A genius decision-maker by foot who was among the Dogs' best in their Grand Final defeat.
40 Jacob Weitering (Carlton)
A sure presence in the defensive 50 for the Blues, Weitering is calm and composed and takes on some of the competition's best key forwards. Was judged internally to have a better season last year at the Blues than Coleman Medallist Harry McKay, with the new vice-captain finishing second in the club's best and fairest.
39 Travis Boak (Port Adelaide)
Just watch Boak's performance against the Western Bulldogs in round 23 if you want to know how well the 33-year-old is still playing. Wants to play until deep into his 30s and is showing no signs of slowing down.
38 Luke Parker (Sydney)
All the talk has been about the young Swans, but Parker still has plenty left in the tank. It took the Swans some time to lock Parker into a contract last year but it was important they did – the co-captain claimed the best and fairest and returned to the All-Australian side after a barnstorming season that set up Sydney's rise up the ladder.
37 Lachie Whitfield (Greater Western Sydney)
We didn't see the best of Whitfield last year after a pre-season bruised liver saw him miss the first six weeks of the season. After that he was behind the eight-ball but still finished 10th in the Giants' best and fairest. Perhaps the best run and carry midfielder in the competition with his elite foot skills.
36 Charlie Cameron (Brisbane Lions )
Took a little time to rev up last year but once going finished the season with 55 goals, including eight across the Lions' two finals when he stood up under the pump. A crowd favourite who ignites his side at ground level but can also lead out of the goalsquare. Special player.
35 Jeremy Cameron (Geelong)
Cameron says he is aiming to have the best season of his career this year after a strong summer. It has been two years since Cameron has been at that level after 24 goals in 2020 and 39 last year from 15 games as he battled hamstring injuries. At his best is a top-10 player in the competition.
34 Isaac Heeney (Sydney)
Is this the year Heeney is unleashed into the midfield? He's ready for it and will be eyeing a Christian Petracca-like campaign that sees him dominate stoppages and also push forward to hit the scoreboard. Has had to play as a marking forward but had his best season last year with 36 goals. Could be ready to explode.
33 Josh Kelly (Greater Western Sydney)
Kelly found his groove again last year after two injury-hit seasons in 2019-20. He became a goalkicker – he booted 15 goals in the first 16 rounds – and was back to his hard-running, relentless best through the midfield. Has stepped up to be a co-captain of the Giants this year and is locked into the club for the next eight years.
32 Max King (St Kilda)
By the end of this season King may well have established himself as one of the premier key forwards in the AFL. Accuracy issues cost him last year but he still kicked 38 goals and 30 behinds in what was only his second season playing at the top level. As dangerous in the air as at ground level and so central to St Kilda's hopes.
31 Tom Mitchell (Hawthorn)
The AFL's chief ball-magnet. Averaged 34 disposals last season and nearly five clearances. Will be looking to get back to his damaging best of 2018 this year but don't expect the numbers to plummet.
30 Patrick Cripps (Carlton)
Can Cripps recapture the form that made him one of the top-five midfielders in the game? At times he looked worn down in 2021 and battled some body ailments, but Cripps at his best is an impossible task to control: big, strong, powerful and dominant when the ball's up for grabs.
29 Aaron Naughton (Western Bulldogs)
The 'Astro-Naught' flew high last year for the Bulldogs, his run and jump making him perhaps the most exciting young key forward in the game. Still only 22, Naughton spearheaded the Dogs' forward line on its way to the Grand Final and can be unstoppable in the air.
28 Lance Franklin (Sydney)
All eyes are on Franklin as he enters this season five goals short of becoming the sixth and perhaps the last player to reach the 1000-goal milestone. Franklin was back to some of his best last year in kicking 51 goals from 18 games, including five hauls of four or more. It looms as a Buddy celebration year.
27 Shai Bolton (Richmond)
Bolton came of age in 2021 and there's more heights to scale. Plays the game for fun and makes it fun for everyone around him or watching him with his sky scraping marks and brilliant goals. Bolton has become a legitimate midfield star who doesn't need huge statistics to influence results.
26 Jake Stringer (Essendon)
A maverick and a matchwinner in the same breath, Stringer couldn't have done much more last year for the Bombers. He led their goalkicking for the third time in four years (with 41 goals from 18 games) and produced several game-breaking performances whilst spending more time as a centre-square midfield bull. Essendon has found his best role and it works.