The 25-29 age bracket is where an AFL player can really get the most out of themselves.
By this stage of a career, a player has the experience, knowledge, conditioning and maturity to become a key leader, a frequent match winner and even possesses the ability to guide their club to a premiership.
The following group of players have been performing on the big stage for years and are now rated as some of the best players in the country.
The list below is our view of the Top 10 AFL players who will start the 2018 season in between 25 and 29 years of age.
AFL Nation’s Top 10 25-29
1. Dustin Martin (Richmond)
Martin’s 2017 one was one of the most damaging seasons you will see from an individual.
He finished up with a coveted Premiership medal in addition to his Brownlow, Norm Smith, AFLPA MVP, AFLCA Player of the Year, a second consecutive Tigers Best & Fairest, a second straight All-Australian selection plus many other accolades from various media outlets.
Martin wins the ball with ease, uses it with devastating effect and is almost impossible to stop when in a one-on-one situation.
Dominating the contest, gaining clearances at will, pumping the ball inside 50, kicking crunch goals and finding teammates with precision are some of Martin’s more accomplished acts on a footy field.
Has taken the mantle from Patrick Dangerfield as the preeminent performer in the competition following a stirring 2017 and is only destined for more deserved prosperity.
*Turns 27 in June
2. Patrick Dangerfield (Geelong)
Reduced to number two in this age group – as well as the entire league – but only very narrowly.
Dangerfield was the prime mover in the AFL with Geelong in 2016 upon returning to Victoria when winning the Brownlow Medal and wasn’t too far off reproducing his brilliant season in 2017.
Numbers-wise, 2017 was just as impressive for ‘Danger’ who sacrificed his disposals per game average in a bid to increase his scoring power and general output around the contest.
Back-to-back Cats Best & Fairest awards and the second most votes in the Brownlow signifies just how much quality this guy possesses.
He remains one of the most powerful players in the game today and one who is spurred so much by the prospect of team success that there is little doubt his eagerness and desire will escalate in 2018.
Can turn a game in seconds with his willingness to force himself upon the contest doubled with his capacity as the game’s most prolific goalkicking midfielder.
*Turns 28 in April
3. Alex Rance (Richmond)
Hands down the best defender in the game.
Rance was not far behind Dustin Martin in Richmond’s Best & Fairest in a premiership season which speaks volumes for a key back.
He also made it four straight All-Australian selections, as well as being named captain, to further heighten his credentials and stamp his authority on the game.
Rance is top of the table for all the tough stuff such as intercepts, one percenters, knock-ons and shepherds, is an expert in spatial awareness, and maintains important intangibles like self-confidence and taking on defensive responsibility.
The Tigers are lucky enough to have the best one-on-one player in the attacking half of the ground in Martin. They also have the league’s elite performer in this category in the defensive half of the ground in Rance. He has defended more contests than any other player in the competition since 2013 and has been the best intercept player bar none during that time.
There would be not one forward who enjoys playing against the tenacity of Rance whose consistent stinginess in defence was vital in the Tigers breaking their 37-year flag drought.
*Turns 29 in October
4. Nat Fyfe (Fremantle)
We may not have seen Fyfe at his best since his 2015 Brownlow win but you can never deny a champion.
Restricted to five games in 2016 because of a broken leg but still managed to impress in what was an extremely difficult 2017 for the Dockers.
Fyfe averaged more than 26 touches, ranked fourth in contested possessions per game and polled 15 Brownlow votes to remind us all of the explosiveness, power and match-winning ability which has mesmerised us since he burst onto the scene in 2010.
In 2017, his kicking efficiency was not as we have once seen but he remains armed with one of the best inside games in the land.
It is the opinion of many observers that Fyfe is poised to explode 2015-style this year after enjoying an injury-free run which is a major plus for Freo and their plans to recover from a paltry 8-win campaign.
*Turns 27 in September
5. Rory Sloane (Adelaide)
Sloane was one of Adelaide’s top performers throughout 2017 in what was the club’s best season in two decades.
Finished runner-up in the Best & Fairest behind Matt Crouch, polled the 7th most Brownlow votes in the competition and was voted as the ‘Most Courageous’ player by his peers.
His average disposals dropped off slightly from 2016 as he at times struggled to deal with close attention from run-with players but he still hit the 20 touches mark in 18 of his 24 outings.
Sloane’s tough and uncompromising tackle-happy playing style is complemented by his ability to finish efficiently in the forward 50 (evidenced by 20 goals, seven behinds) and his penchant to help clean up in defence.
The Victorian will be seething after last year’s Grand Final loss so expect to see him as maniacal at the ball as ever in 2018 before he decides on whether his future lies in South Australia or back home.
*Turns 28 in March
6. Luke Parker (Sydney)
To win two Best & Fairest awards in a team as consistent as the Sydney Swans is some sort of feat.
From a consistency viewpoint, Parker has been up there with inspiring Swans skipper Josh Kennedy, the dynamic Dan Hannebery and veteran Jarrad McVeigh over the last few years.
Completely missed the cut with the All-Australian squad in 2017 but managed to beat Buddy Franklin and Kennedy to the Swans B&F which suggests that perhaps he is rated a little higher within the four walls of his club than outside.
Has averaged 25+ disposals and almost a goal per game since 2014, which is impressive in itself, but it is his wild attack on the contest which really endears him to the Swans faithful.
Of permanent midfielders, only Martin and Dangerfield have kicked more goals than Parker since 2013.
He is in the elite class for total contested possessions, overall clearances and stoppage clearances and is in the top 10 in the league for centre clearances.
A powerful midfielder who simply gets the job done while sprinkling a touch of attacking flair on his destructive game style.
*Turns 26 in October
7. Callan Ward (GWS Giants)
Ward has also been a model of consistency in recent years with his bash and crash style.
In a very similar mould to that of the aforementioned Parker, he combines force with class when going about his business on a weekly basis.
Ward has only experienced one Best & Fairest finish outside his club’s top 4 since 2011, claiming GWS’ inaugural club champion award in 2012 and finishing runner-up on three occasions, further highlighting his dependability.
Ward is one of the Giants’ major midfield strengths and their most important leader due to his attack on the ball, his tenacity around the contest and his ability to force the ball forward under duress.
Averaged more than 27 possessions a game in 2017 – his best result ever – plus career-highs in clearances and score involvements indicating that he is certainly not slowing down.
Since 2012, Ward has tallied the sixth highest amount of matches of AFL midfielders and during that time, is one of four players to rank in the top 20 for disposals, contested possessions, clearances and tackles. The others are Joel Selwood, Josh Kennedy and Scott Pendlebury.
If the Giants are to break their Prelim hoodoo this year or next, there’s no doubt it will be the rugged Ward front and centre in inspiring his teammates across the line.
*Turns 28 in April
8. Michael Hurley (Essendon)
Simply brilliant in his past two years of AFL footy.
If Rance is the game’s preeminent backman, then Hurley is next on the modern day list of distinguished defenders.
Was finally settled on as a key defender in 2014 and has now become one of the competition’s most accomplished tall backs by constantly getting the better of the elite forwards, even with the drug saga thrown in there for good measure.
All-Australian in both 2015 and 2017, having missed out on the 2016 season, and is the game’s most prolific ball-winning key back.
Hurley had the most rebound 50s in the league last year, which is monumental for a bloke of his size, and his capacity to read the ball is remarkable as evidenced by his ranking on the intercepts and total mark charts.
May have only finished 6th in Essendon’s Best & Fairest year but he is one of the best in the game at what he does and that cannot be understated.
*Turns 28 in June
9. Dayne Beams (Brisbane)
Beams may well rank higher if not for his dearth of durability.
He starred for the bottom-placed Lions in 2017, finishing runner-up to the brilliant Dayne Zorko in the Best & Fairest and polling an impressive 17 Brownlow votes in a team that managed just a handful of victories.
Took over the captaincy from Tom Rockliff prior to the season and did a sterling job of strongly leading the most youthful squad in the competition.
Beams was courageous in his efforts to play eight games after injuring his shoulder in Round 14 before undergoing surgery early in the off-season which should have him cherry ripe for season 2018.
In his nine seasons to date, the two-time B&F winner (1 at Collingwood, 1 at Brisbane) has only passed the 20-game mark twice which raises question marks over his reliability to consistently get out on the park but whenever he does play, his quality and tenacity are there for all to clearly see.
Beams’ grunt at stoppages, intelligence with ball in hand and goalkicking ability are all major pluses for the Lions who struggle for competitiveness when he is not at his best.
*Turns 28 in February
10. Steele Sidebottom (Collingwood)
This man oozes class.
In this age group, we’ve been preaching consistency as a key performance indicator.
Well, consistency and Sidebottom are two words that are quite frequently incorporated in the same sentence.
Broke through for his first Magpies Best & Fairest in 2017 following his most prolific season in which he shouldered much of the responsibility in the absence of injured skipper Scott Pendlebury.
Since 2012, Sidebottom has finished in the top five in Collingwood club champion counts in sides consisting of Pendlebury, Dane Swan and Dayne Beams.
Appears effortless in his movement with all the natural talent he has in his locker but his discipline, endeavour and commitment are not to be doubted.
Has improved his clearance game to go along with the uncontested possession rate, pressure acts, intercepting nous and scoreboard impact that have defined him over his 185-game career.
*Turned 27 on January 2
Cyril Rioli (Hawthorn) – Could not leave this guy out even despite his injury-riddled 2017.
Four premierships, a Norm Smith Medal and three All-Australian selections for a small forward is simply outstanding.
Rioli can change a game in an instant with his goalkicking expertise, forward line harassing and love of the good old tackle & chase.
Jeremy McGovern (West Coast) – Rates just behind Rance and Hurley as the game’s best defender. All-Australian the last two seasons led by his intercept savvy and his one-on-one prowess.
Really stepped up in 2017, finishing 2nd in the Eagles B&F, and stamping himself as one of the league’s top choice backmen.
Dan Hannebery (Sydney) – Don’t judge Hannebery too harshly for his 2017 output. He is still an absolute star.
Made the All-Australian team in 2015 and 2016, to add to his 2013 selection, only to drop off a little last year.
The 2010 Rising Star still averages near 25 possessions over a 193-game career and when it comes to winning clearances and the contested footy, he remains a guru.
Nic Naitanui (West Coast) – Missed all of 2017 with a knee injury but still has to be included. The Eagles missed him sorely, experiencing a major drop off in the middle of the ground in his absence.
May not be a big accumulator of the ‘usual’ stats but his impact on almost every game he plays, in regards to hitouts to advantage, contested possessions and score involvements/assists, is undeniable.
Is the reason between Ben Brown (North Melbourne) – To kick 63 goals in a team that won just six games is an unbelievable effort.
Brown is unstoppable on the lead and his goalkicking accuracy is a highlight of his game. May be rated a touch higher than some others in this age group (Dahlhaus, Cotchin, Rockliff etc.) but midfielders are a dime a dozen these days and tall forwards who can actually kick goals are quite rare.
Rated mainly on last season when only Buddy and JK kicked more than he.