FTP #19 (2021)

Welcome to the 19th edition of Footy Talking Points, featuring AFL's most underrated player, Ollie Henry and Jeremy Sharp!

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1. AFL's most underrated player

Is Rory Laird (#29) the most underrated player in the AFL?

Laird is the best midfielder in the league who has received zero All-Australian team buzz. He's having a career year as a midfielder averaging 32.2 disposals (4th in the AFL) including 15.1 contested disposals, 7.1 clearances (5th in the AFL) and 6.2 score involvements. It's been an inspired move by coach Matthew Nicks, who decided to shift Laird from half back to a permanent midfield role in Round 10 last year. Laird started to dominate games immediately.

He has incredible core strength to hold up in tackles, allowing him to handball release to team mates . He averages 17 handballs a game. Many of these would result in a stoppage for others. But not Laird. He finds a way to distribute to teammates even in strongly held tackles, which in turn creates opportunities for clearances and favourable field position for Adelaide. How incredible are his hands here in both instances.

On the outside, he is a link up midfielder in every sense of the word. At this point, it'd be second nature for his teammates to look up from a ground ball and see Laird in the perfect position for the handball. He always provides handball avenues for team mates. The work rate to push hard forward and get involved in the link up is immense. It's not always at top speed but Laird's always on the move. He works past Worpel at the initial contest and continues to track the ball before setting up a goal.

Laird never loses his feet in a contest and is clean by foot. He doesn't have the variety of kicks that other elite AFL players possess but he plays within his limits and is excellent at hitting that short 15-20 metre kick.

We discuss Sharp and his impressive work rate later. When you watch the film on Laird compared to Sharp, you quickly realise that there's another level (that's not a knock on Sharp - it just shows the difference between a good young player and an arguably elite AFL player). Laird's work rate around the ground is incomparable. His ability to shift from contest to contest is league best outside of  Clayton Oliver. If he isn't winning a clearance himself, he's usually the first to leave the stoppage. The statistics back it up as well - he averages 10.8 ground ball gets a game (2nd in the AFL behind Oliver).

Laird plays with so much physicality and has a number of tricks around stoppages. There's a reason why he averages 7 clearances a game. He's super proactive in his positioning and knows where the dangerous space is. Players who give their back to Laird or take the front position do so at their own risk.

He'll often push his man under the ruck contest and own the outside space at a stoppage. If he gets beaten at the contest, he is manic with his tackling and defensive pressure. It's a big tick to Laird's move into the midfield. Adelaide never have to worry about Laird's effort on the defensive side of the ball. It's clearly been instilled into him through his years playing as a small defender and as a rookie draft elevation with something to prove.

Given Laird's size, his limited in terms of his positional versatility. Yet, he's rested as a small forward a number of times this year and can be relied upon to provide pressure at ground level. He isn't going to take big pack marks or frighten defenders in one on one marking contests yet he isn't awful overhead either.

The lack of media discussion regarding Laird is hard to understand yet not surprising. He plays in a team near the bottom of the ladder but his individual impact on games is clear. The deficiency in Laird's game is that he doesn't kick many goals (3 for the year). But again, that doesn't mean he isn't capable as evidenced on the weekend kicking two important 4th quarter goals. He isn't a flashy footballer and seems quite reserved off field. But in a league with only 18 teams, players like Laird need to be more celebrated. Laird will genuinely poll well in the Brownlow. He may even finish in the Top 5. When you watch Adelaide next - look out for #29 and the subtle imprint he has on the game.

2. Ollie Henry

Collingwood young talent time!

FTP has delved into Collingwood a number of times this year (here, here and here ). However, I was politely reminded (kind of?) by a loyal FTP reader that we haven't had a player profile on a young Collingwood player yet. Whilst we've discussed a few in passing (Daicos, Bianco), Ollie Henry's (#35) recent form deserves discussion.

Henry has all the qualities to be a very good AFL player. It serves as a sharp reminder to refrain in judging a player off their first game (or even first season) of AFL football. Most would forget but Henry actually debuted in Round 1. Understandably, he looked well off the pace. But it was interesting that Collingwood made that call so early on especially given this was before all their injury issues. The only logical reason for this is that Henry was doing the kinds of things at training that we're going to show below. It's just now we are seeing them on game day.

Henry plays a mid forward with great athleticism and smarts. He has great spacial awareness. He times his leads out the back into space perfectly which is quite rare for a young player. Most will lead too early and use up all of their space. Henry doesn't - he understands how to protect his leading lane and time his leads well.

Here, he is shifting back to goal thinking Grundy will go long. Just before he kicks it, Henry points in front. He understands that the dangerous space is in front of him. Grundy has an easy kick and Henry takes an easy mark off the back of his smart spacial awareness.

Here he owns the dangerous space out the back. He brings Bonner out wide and then cuts back inside when he realises he isn't paying attention. It's a brilliant kick from Sidebottom but it's also a terrific leading pattern from Henry.

He's smart around goals and is great at finishing with little time and space. He has a beautiful set shot, can kick goals across his body and is great at snapping for goal - something that seems to be a required skill to get drafted now. Maybe I'm the only one that sees tit but he has the exact same mannerisms and light athletic build to Conor Rozee and it's a pretty good comp.

Both are rangy forwards who are good above their head. I actually think Henry is a smarter player in regards to his leading patterns but is no where near the athlete of Rozee. But for a mid forward, he has really strong hands.

For the position he plays, Henry's impact especially in the last two weeks has been impressive. 13.5 disposals, 7 marks, 6 score involvements and 2.5 goals per game. The natural progression for Henry is a move into the midfield. Although I would continue to play him in his natural forward position for at least a few years. This is both due to Collingwood's lack of depth in the position and that it's beneficial for Henry's development to become a more refined goal kicking midfielder.

You can see the midfielder traits given he has quick hands and is a nice field kick.

Henry needs to put on more size which will come with a few more preseasons. He struggles against stronger defenders who engage him and don't let him have a running start. He isn't able to hold up in tackles consistently and usually gets dispossessed.

Collingwood's future looks bright. They have a number of developing young players with more  responsibility and opportunity going into next year. I think their list is actually undervalued and a coach who does their due diligence on it would be crazy not to be attracted to the role. Now we can add Henry to that list. He may end up being the best of them all.

3. Jeremy Sharp

It hasn't been the year Gold Coast optimists were expecting. Some have left the ship - suddenly beginning to doubt whether Dew's the right man to take this team to their first finals birth. We say it all the time at FTP but progression isn't linear, especially with rebuilding teams. Yet, outside of a broken Richmond and a flat Sydney - Gold Coast haven't had any "See the rebuild's on the right track" wins that even North Melbourne have shown this year. But one thing is for certain, Gold Coast have a plethora of young talent.

Just when you think some have regressed (Rankine), others ascend into Brownlow winning contention (Touk). And others make you question how they weren't in the side all year. That's how I've felt watching Jeremy Sharp (#37) the last few weeks. He hasn't looked a step out of place since returning to the senior side in Round 15. His per game numbers in the last two weeks are mind boggling for an inexperienced player - averaging 30.5 disposals, 9.5 marks, 7 score involvements and 494 metres gained.

Taken with Pick 27 in the 2019 draft, Sharp is quite different to Gold Coast's other draftees. Gold Coast have drafted based on the core position to contend in the AFL. This has included inside midfielders, intercept players, key forwards and small forwards. They've largely neglected outside players at the draft, opting for more senior avenues with players like Ellis and Atkins in recent years. The exception is Sharp who was drafted as an outside midfielder and before our eyes is becoming a great one at AFL level.

The first thing you notice about Sharp is his work rate. He spreads incredibly hard from contests. He works back to help his defenders to provide an outlet for them to kick to under pressure. He averages almost 3 rebound 50's a game - rated elite for a wingmen. He's more a defensive wingmen to date although that's likely Dew's instructions to a play a more defensive role given Ellis' heat map is quite similar to Sharp's.

He never ball watches and always has reference to his opposition wingman. This is important because players like McIntosh look to exploit you if you get drawn into the contest while they keep their shape. McIntosh is used to receiving this uncontested mark.

But Sharp is so much more than a defensive wingmen. He challenges opposition with his off ball running. It's often unrewarded. Sometimes, his work rate pays off in the biggest possible way.

McCluggage is no slouch in his running capacity - arguably the best in the league. Sharp makes him look second rate.

With this kind of work rate, it's easy to see how Sharp is already a 20+ disposal midfielder at AFL level. He simply gets to so many contests to get used.

Sharp understands how to play the wing position to a tee given his junior experience. He never gets sucked into a contest or gravitates towards the ball. He keeps his length and width on the off ball side, which compliments Gold Coast's kick mark game perfectly. When Gold Coast look to change angles to the other side of the groundm Sharp is there on the open side.

Outside of his work rate and ball winning ability, Sharp has a long penetrating kick and isn't afraid to take risks with it. For a 7th gamer to hit this kick shows incredible poise and kicking execution.

Sometimes you get excited when a young player attempts a corridor kick even if it's a turnover because there's optimism that they begin to identify when it's the right decision and when it's not. Sharp already makes the right decision. It might not happen consistently but in just his 7th game  the pathway to be a damaging midfielder is evident.

Sharp rounds out the 2019 draft nicely for Gold Coast. To land Rowell, Anderson, Flanders and Sharp with your first four picks (albeit high picks) is a great outcome for a team that needs to hit these picks. Sharp has all the traits to become a quality AFL player. I'm bullish on the Gold Coast Suns, they simply have too many talented young players already impacting games at a high level. Now it's all about demonstrating consistency in their performances week to week and within games (The Lions drop off a prime example). We've made our thoughts known on where the list should go from here but with players like Sharp who are progressing nicely, it's hard not to see a positive future for the Gold Coast Suns.

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