‘Phase 2’ of an AFL career often produces absolute superstars of the game.
When a player moves into the 22-25 age bracket, they can begin to have a serious impact on matches on a more consistent basis.
These guys below have either already been doing it for years or are just starting to edge their way into the elite category.
The list below is our view of the Top 10 AFL players who will start the 2018 season in between 22 to 25 years of age.
AFL Nation’s Top 10 22-25
1. Josh Kelly (GWS Giants)
Kelly is one of the absolute premium when it comes to the discussion of AFL midfielders.
Still only 22, the Melbourne native is a sublime user of the ball, an elite runner and a more than competent contested possession winner.
Took his game to the top level in 2017, resulting in his first Giants B&F and landing him a 6th-place overall finish in the Brownlow Medal. Also claimed All-Australian honours – perhaps the first of many.
There would be few to argue that Kelly belongs in pole position in this category of players. He may even push himself into the top few in the entire game come the end of the 2018 season.
*Turns 23 in February
2. Marcus Bontempelli (Western Bulldogs)
This guy is pure class.
The only problem is that he has placed such high expectations on his shoulders with brilliant past performances that we now forecast excellence every time he steps out onto the park.
Remarkably, Bontempelli won the Bulldogs B&F in their surprise premiership win while just 21.
He added a second Charles Sutton Medal to his collection last year despite many suggesting his form dipped from his All-Australian 2016.
Has been named in the ‘22Under22’ team in each of the past four seasons, including captain the last two, indicating just what supporters of all clubs think of him.
We all know what ‘The Bont’ is capable of so rather than criticise for him for not setting the world alight every single week, just sit back and enjoy what the impressive athleticism of this crafty cruiser has to offer.
*Turns 23 in November
3. Matt Crouch (Adelaide)
The younger of the two Crouch brothers at Adelaide has emerged as one of the most improved players in the competition over the past two seasons.
In 2015, Matt averaged just 21 possessions per game but has dramatically increased that output to more than 33, becoming the AFL’s most prolific ball gatherer.
At one point in recent years was rated behind older brother Brad but has quickly taken the Crouch mantle by storming to the Crows B&F last year.
Has taken his clearance and inside 50 game to a much higher level making him a far more dangerous midfield prospect than he was previously.
Crouch forced himself upon the elite mids in the league after adding All-Australian selection and a Grand Final appearance to his growing list of accolades.
*Turns 23 in April
4. Tom Mitchell (Hawthorn)
In a similar mould to Crouch, Mitchell has improved out of sight over the past few season, particularly the last two.
Mitchell made his debut season with the Hawks one to remember by picking up the 2017 Best & Fairest, quite easily in the end, as well as gaining All-Australian selection.
Was solid in averaging just over 27 touches for the Swans in 2016 and 2017, finishing 9th and 8th in their club champions awards, but has managed to step to another stratosphere at Hawthorn.
A league-high average of 35.8 disposals is quite a feat and to pick up 50 once and 40+ twice only adds to the accomplishment.
The 24-year-old is maligned for apparently picking up ‘dinky’ possessions but half the battle in AFL footy is to get the ball – a skill Mitchell is extremely proficient in.
*Turns 25 in May
5. Joe Daniher (Essendon)
Far and away the game’s premier tall forward in this age bracket.
Daniher has been threatening to fully take the game by storm since debuting in 2013 and after a couple of decent seasons, finally did so in 2017.
65 goals and 153 marks helped him win the Essendon Best & Fairest and gain All-Australian selection for the first time while truly igniting the imagination of the red and black faithful.
There have been comparisons to Buddy Franklin, and although that is unfair on Joe, his constant improvement year after year suggests he may well be knocking on the door of the preeminent roaming forward of the competition for years to come.
Essendon’s dreams for success rest on the young shoulders of Daniher and there is little doubt that the personality of the towering 23-year-old is built to meet such high expectations.
70+ goals from Daniher in 2018 would see then new-look Dons fly for the top eight and quite possibly make a stir in September.
*Turns 24 in March
6. Dylan Shiel (GWS Giants)
The nuggety midfielder, who is an endurance freak, has finally managed to get his body right and subsequently the Giants have benefited.
Interrupted 2014 and 2015 seasons threatened to restrict Shiel to ‘almost there’ status but evidently quad and knee injuries are now a thing of the past allowing him to tally 48 games in the last two years.
These days, Shiel is considered elite in the clearances category after gaining the equal 2nd most overall clearances in the AFL in 2018 and second only behind Brownlow Medallist Dustin Martin for centre clearances.
Shiel is also near the top of the total disposals, inside 50s and contested possessions categories, making him a lethal midfield weapon for the Giants.
Some of his inside toiling often goes unnoticed by those handing out the votes but there is no denying Shiel’s positive impact on almost every GWS game. Take his early exit in the Preliminary Final as a prime example of that.
*Turns 25 in March
7. Zach Merrett (Essendon)
The consummate professional with his ball-gathering ability and exclusive skill execution.
Merrett now sits comfortably in the top echelon of midfielders in the competition and is certainly one of Essendon’s elite performers having landed 4th, 1st and 4th-place finishes in the Best & Fairest the past three seasons.
An average of close to 30 possessions last year and in 2016, Merrett has shot up the priority list of each opposition coach such is his damaging nature with ball in hand or by foot.
Is highly-respected at Essendon and it is expected that this regard will only continue to work its way through the entire competition.
Turns 23 in October
8. Adam Treloar (Collingwood)
Remarkably consistent performer who continues to rack up the stats.
At 24, Treloar already has 122 AFL matches to his name and to have an average of 27 disposals per game is quite an exploit.
Since 2013, the former GWS Giant has Best & Fairest finishes of 5th, 4th, 2nd, 2nd and 3rd. Now that is consistent.
He can take his game to the elite level by improving his skill efficiency – particularly by foot – and if that happens then his line running and game breaking ability are weapons the Pies can use to great effect.
It is hard to stop Treloar from constantly finding the ball in a contested situation before breaking into space so if the polish can be applied, this ever-improving power runner will only continue flourishing as he matures furthermore.
*Turns 25 in March
9. Patrick Cripps (Carlton)
Injury problems have so far restricted the influence Cripps has had at the Carlton Football Club.
While some may argue there are better players in this age group outside the Top 10, you cannot argue that Cripps has the most upside at just 22.
Getting your hands on the ball in tight is the toughest skill in the game and Cripps absolutely excels at it.
Despite playing just 15 games in 2017, he ranked very highly in contested possessions per game where he sat only marginally behind Gary Ablett and Joel Selwood and ahead of Matt Crouch and Rory Sloane.
Cripps is also in the elite bracket for clearances as evidenced by his massive 185 (second only to Sydney bull Josh Kennedy) in 2016.
The 2015 Carlton Best & Fairest often delivers in spades and is sure to only keep bettering himself as he takes on more and more responsibility for the youthful Blues.
*Turns 23 in March
10. Brodie Grundy (Collingwood)
The best young ruckman in the competition.
Grundy is still only 23 but commands respect at the contest and looks to be learning so much about his craft each game he plays.
Back-to-back top 5 finishes in the Collingwood Best & Fairest shows where he is rated by the coaching staff and is, from all reports, a very good learner who yearns for constant improvement.
Fifth in overall hitouts in 2017 but managed to more than match it with the likes of Sam Jacobs, Paddy Ryder, Shane Mumford and Stefan Martin around the ground and by causing chaos at contests.
The only way is up for Grundy and if he can keep tallying close to 19 disposals per game and laying near on four tackles then the Magpies will be well-served for the best part of the next decade.
*Turns 24 in April
Lachie Neale (Fremantle) – The Dockers gun is very stiff to miss the Top 10. Has played 113 games for an average of 25.4 possessions but probably lacks the power of a few midfielders above him. 2016 Freo Best & Fairest and perfect foil for Nat Fyfe.
Toby Greene (GWS Giants) – Ill-discipline the only thing that restricts the overall output of Greene. A dynamic small forward with midfield capabilities. 44 and 45 goals last two seasons a great return.
Ollie Wines (Port Adelaide) – Beastly midfielder who is expected to captain the Power one day. Has won Port’s Gavin Wanganeen Medal (Best Player Under 21) on three occasions. Turns 24 this year and could leapfrog a lot of these with another big season.
Sam Docherty (Carlton) – Only recently 24 and already a Blues B&F winner and an All-Australian. Averages over 27 touches a game and only misses this Top 10 due to his position being slightly easier than that of a midfielder. Elite rebound 50 player who will be sorely missed in 2018.
Seb Ross (St Kilda) – Probably the most improved player in the competition. Has gone from getting the ball just 18 times per game to averaging near-on 30 touches in 2017. Is now recovered from a spate of injuries and is subsequently St Kilda’s prime mover and reigning Best & Fairest.