We’re now less than a month away from the AFL Women’s competition returning and with the squads set, it’s time to look at each team’s best 21 – yes, 21. The AFL has limited teams to five players on the bench to go with 16 on the field and that means we will be going through each side’s best 21.

After a strong start, Carlton finished the inaugural AFLW season in fourth place and was only a whisker away from the Grand Final. The Blues clearly thought they were missing pieces of the puzzle and went harder in the trade period than any other team looking for big names.

What they got was Collingwood best and fairest winner Nicola Stevens and Brisbane marquee Tayla Harris and the implications of these trades will likely shape as the central storyline of Carlton’s season.

The Blues gave up their first three draft selections, speedy midfielder Nat Exon and promising young forward Isabella Ayre for the two and now the pressure will be on Harris and Stevens to perform in the navy blue.

Stevens shapes as the craftier of the two selections as she should slot straight into a key defensive role. She also can provide plenty of run out of the backline and this frees marquee Brianna Davey to spend more time in the midfield.

Carlton’s backline was ravaged by injuries in 2017, but was very effective at full strength. Danielle Hardiman was unlucky to miss out on All-Australian selection and the duo of Laura Attard and Sarah Last did an incredibly underrated job of locking down opposition forwards. Throwing Stevens in the mix should give the Blues one of the best backlines in the competition.

This side’s biggest weakness in 2017 came through the midfield and once again it shapes up as the point of concern. Davey becoming predominantly a midfielder this season will help immensely as she quickly emerged as one of the best handful of players in the competition, but they’ll need players to stand up beneath her because the Blues couldn't contain opposition on-ballers. They were taken apart by quality midfielders almost every week and it undoubtedly cost them games. The numbers speak for themselves:

- Emma Kearney, Ellie Blackburn and Jaimee Lambert combined for 50 disposals and four goals (Carlton wins)
- Erin Phillips and Ebony Marinoff combined for 34 disposals and a goal (Carlton lose)
- Kara Donnellan and Dana Hooker combined for 40 disposals and two goals (Carlton lose)
- Daisy Pearce, Karen Paxman and Elise O’Dea combined for 80 disposals and a goal (Carlton lose)

If they don’t address this issue, they won’t be the premiership threat everyone thinks they will be – it's as simple as that.

The Blues bolstered their midfield depth by drafting 18-year-old Georgia Gee with pick 12 and signing Maddison Gay from the St Kilda Sharks. Gay in particular was very impressive in the VFLW and should see immediate game time as a speedy midfielder who can hit the scoreboard.

With Lauren Arnell likely set to spend more time up forward this season as she enters the twilight of her career, Carlton will be looking at the likes of Maddy Keryk, Sarah Hosking and Tilly Lucas-Rodd to take the next step and support Davey through the middle.

Carlton21 (2)

What makes many bullish about the Blues is the forward line they’ve assembled and it looks devastating on paper. Throwing Harris in there with competition leading goal kicker Darcy Vescio makes for a very interesting duo. They should be able to share the forward line quite easily too as Harris’ strength is getting up the ground and taking contested marks between the arcs.

Carlton also may have the best squad depth in the competition thanks to some nifty drafting this season. Experienced midfielder Sophie Li will be able to step in and play whenever required and the Blues may have nabbed the steal of the draft in versatile forward Bridie Kennedy.

Kennedy shared the 2017 TAC Cup best and fairest award with Collingwood forward Chloe Molloy, who went pick three in the draft. Carlton fans should be very excited about the squad they’ve put together.

Season predictions:
Carlton should be right on the cusp of finals, but the question mark over their ability to stop elite midfielders makes it hard to bump them into the top two. They should be a nightmare for opposition sides on both sides of the field, but we’ll have to wait and see whether they can get it done in the middle.

The Blues also drew a tough fixture with three interstate games and that could make all the difference in a season where one result could shift the ladder dramatically. Their marquees in Davey and Vescio should continue carrying the side and Davey in particular may find herself in the conversation for league MVP.

Ladder prediction: 3rd
Season MVP: Brianna Davey
Leading goal kicker: Darcy Vescio
Surprise packet: Maddison Gay