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AFL.com.au's snakes and ladders

staff writers  July 10, 2013 7:00 AM

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Pearce Hanley has been a shining light for the Lions this season

ADELAIDE

THE BIG IMPROVER: Richard Douglas. The midfielder struggled to reach the bar he set when he took out the 2010 Malcolm Blight Medal as the Crows' best, but he's taken a huge step towards doing just that this year. Douglas underwent special training in the pre-season in order to get to more contests in 2013 and it's clearly paid off. The 26-year-old has upped his disposal count to 23 a game from 18 and is averaging four tackles a game – even more than the 3.4 a match in his best and fairest year.

COULD DO BETTER: Scott Thompson. Adelaide football manager Phil Harper is right in pointing out it's unfair to expect Thompson to maintain the form that delivered two consecutive club champion awards forever, but there's no doubt he's dropped off. His disposal numbers have dipped from almost 30 a game last year to 26 in 2013 and his influence on games hasn’t been what it was over the last few seasons either. - Harry Thring

BRISBANE LIONS

THE BIG IMPROVER: Pearce Hanley had a terrific 2012 and finished third in the best and fairest, but under more scrutiny and with closer opposition attention, has elevated his game again. With Simon Black and Daniel Rich both suffering long-term injuries, the fleet-footed Irishman has often copped the opposition's best tagger. He is arguably the Lions' most dangerous player. He breaks lines and sets up much of their good play with his 22 touches per contest.

COULD DO BETTER: James Polkinghorne is in his sixth season and has been dropped three times by Michael Voss. As he showed with an excellent four-game mid-season stretch, his best is very very good and adds significantly to the club's midfield. At 24, Polkinghorne is strong, clever and exactly the kind of player the Lions need to flourish to progress as a group. He just needs to recapture that form. - Michael Whiting

CARLTON

THE BIG IMPROVER: Andrew Walker. After taking an internationally acclaimed screamer in the NAB Cup and kicking the Blues' first three goals against Collingwood in round two, the 'Skywalker' has been recast as a defensive architect – with stunning results. His dash and high-class disposal on either side of his body have the 27-year-old firmly in All Australian contention. The sixth-ranked defender in the Official AFL Player Ratings, Walker leads the Blues in disposals (averaging 22.9 a game), kicks (fourth in the AFL), rebounds (second in AFL) and running bounces (equal-third in AFL), and is second in disposal efficiency (76.6 per cent) and AFL Fantasy points.

COULD DO BETTER: Chris Yarran boasts a rare combination of talent and athletic prowess, but appears to be lacking two crucial ingredients: consistency and total commitment to the cause. The mercurial forward started the season in brilliant fashion with 13 goals in the opening five rounds, when his pace and evasive skills, allied with that of fellow speedster Jeff Garlett, set the Blues alight. But in his past six games he has managed just four majors, including three against winless Greater Western Sydney. The 22-year-old has twice been a substitute, and was dropped after displaying poor body language the first time he was handed the red vest. - Ben Collins


Carlton coach Mick Malthouse has a stern word with Chris Yarran. Picture: AFL Media

COLLINGWOOD

THE BIG IMPROVER: Jamie Elliott's second year at Collingwood has been nothing short of exceptional. At 175cm, Elliott is not your traditional small forward, as the young Pie is more inclined to latch on to a big pack mark than pick up the crumbs. He has shown, time and again, that he can fly above packs to take a hanger. Elliott has taken 22 marks inside forward 50 – equal 20th in the competition – and has 20 goals to his name in a superb year. 

COULD DO BETTER: In the AFL Record at the start of the year, Steele Sidebottom was nominated as a player who could take his game to the elite level. Sidebottom's season to date has been far from shocking and he has played a couple of blinders (think Anzac Day) but his form has also been slightly patchy. Injuries to the Collingwood midfield have hurt, but Sidebottom is one player the Pies hope can lift in the lead-up to September. - Ben Guthrie

ESSENDON

THE BIG IMPROVER: Jake Carlisle. It's hard to say there is any more improved player in the competition, let alone at Essendon, than Carlisle, who has been a matchwinner for the Bombers on several occasions this year. The 21-year-old will probably be an All Australian defender but has also been excellent across the forward line when shifted there.

COULD DO BETTER: Alwyn Davey might be on par to equal his goal tally of last year but the small forward has showed some average form since mid-season. He was substituted out of a couple of games after being quiet, and then omitted last week to the VFL. At his best, Davey plays an important role in the Bombers' attack. - Callum Twomey

Jake Carlisle has become a probable All Australian defender who can be swung forward. Picture: AFL Media

FREMANTLE

THE BIG IMPROVER: Garrick Ibbotson. Ibbotson could be considered as one of the most improved players in the competition in 2013. He spent the first four weeks in the WAFL due to injury and poor form. After Ross Lyon challenged him to lift his defensive work he has responded to become the No.1 intercept mark in the AFL. Only Nick Riewoldt and Travis Cloke have averaged more marks per game in 2013 than Ibbotson. 

COULD DO BETTER: Stephen Hill. Few players at Fremantle have underperformed this year but Hill hasn't been at his explosive best. He has been heavily tagged and also missed a month with a quad injury but he's only kicked three goals in 10 matches and has had 20-plus disposals in only three matches. - Alex Malcolm

GEELONG

THE BIG IMPROVER: Mathew Stokes. By his own admission, Stokes had a poor season in 2012. But after being unleashed in the midfield this year the 175cm 28-year-old, who had previously been confined to the forward line for most of his career, has thrived. He is averaging 26.6 possessions per game and has still managed to boot nine goals. Last year he averaged 15 touches per game and finished the season with only 15 goals.

COULD DO BETTER: Tom Lonergan. It might seem ridiculous to put the big No. 13 in this category, given the way he brilliantly contained Hawthorn star Lance Franklin last weekend, but Lonergan has been below his best for much of the season to date. Among the key forwards who have got hold of him are Greater Western Sydney's Jeremy Cameron, who booted for goals against the Cats in round 11. - Adam McNicol

GOLD COAST

THE BIG IMPROVER: Dion Prestia was earmarked as an elite midfielder from the moment he was taken with the ninth pick in the 2010 NAB AFL Draft. He looked steady in his first two seasons – averaging 18 disposals per match - but the pocket dynamo has gone to another level in 2013. After a few weeks in the backline to round his game, he jumped back to the middle and has upped his output to 25 touches, the highlight of which a monster 42-possession, two-goal game against Adelaide in round 14. Prestia has achieved all this while playing a number of effective run-with roles.

COULD DO BETTER: Greg Broughton was acquired from Fremantle to add experience and run to the Suns back half. He had a good first month but has been up and down since and even spent time in the Suns' NEAFL team. They didn't pay for him to play reserves, and a lift from the quality 26-year-old would be an enormous help in the back end of the season. - Michael Whiting

GREATER WESTERN SYDNEY 

THE BIG IMPROVER: Tom Scully. Scully has shown excellent signs this season of fulfilling some of the expectation when Melbourne made him the No.1 overall draft pick back in 2009. Used off half-back and as an attacking option at times, he has kicked a career-best eight goals and is averaging better than four tackles across his 14 games. In a winless side, the vice-captain has regularly been named among GWS' best players and would be in the reckoning for the best and fairest alongside Callan Ward and Jeremy Cameron. 

COULD DO BETTER: Toby Greene. The teenager had a stunning rookie season and was considered a likely NAB AFL Rising Star winner if not for a one-game suspension. But he has found it difficult to back that up so far this year. Facing greater defensive scrutiny, he was shifted into a tagging role before being dropped after round 14. Still with so much time on his side, Greene needs to improve his disposal efficiency if he is to maintain a regular place in the midfield. - James Dampney 

Tom Scully has silenced some of his doubters so far this season. Picture: AFL Media

HAWTHORN

THE BIG IMPROVER: It seems ridiculous to say it, given he's been a champion for more than 10 years, but it might be Luke Hodge. The 2012 version of the Hawks skipper managed only 10 games, and most of those were with a sore knee. This year the 29-year-old has been on the park every week (except round one), influencing games with his leadership, versatility, relentless attack on the ball and superb foot skills. He has been pivotal in several wins. 

COULD DO BETTER: On numbers, Brad Sewell. The midfielder enjoyed one of his best seasons in 2012, averaging 25.4 disposals and 5.8 clearances per game. This year, those numbers have dropped to 20.4 and 3.3 – still good by others' standards, but below what the 2007 best and fairest winner is capable of. He has still had his big games, including a best on ground display against the Brisbane Lions a fortnight ago, but those have been intermingled with quieter outings such as in Saturday night's loss to Geelong. Sewell's peak in 2012 came during the finals, and there's every chance he'll rise to the occasion once again.  - Mark Macgugan

MELBOURNE

THE BIG IMPROVER: Colin Garland. This year he has performed with exceptional consistency under all sorts of pressure. Garland has led the way in defence, not only taking intercept marks but being prepared to run with the ball to turn defence into attack. Garland has always had good hands, but his aerial timing continues to improve and he is very adept at keeping his feet. Garland's form has made him an effective leader on and off the ground and his standing in the club and competition continues to rise.

COULD DO BETTER: Mark Jamar has been a disappointment for 18 months. He has not played since the coach was replaced but when he returns he will need to improve to justify the faith the club showed him in when he was signed to a three-year contract in 2012. He has been around football for a long time now but he continues to live off the reputation earned through one good season, when he earned All Australian selection. - Peter Ryan

NORTH MELBOURNE

THE BIG IMPROVER: Lindsay Thomas conquered his goalkicking yips last season but this year has become an elite player. Thomas has kicked 39.16 in 13 games to sit fifth in the Coleman Medal race, 10 goals ahead of the next best small forward, Carlton's Jeff Garlett. Thomas is strong overhead and equally dangerous at ground level, while North coach Brad Scott rates him the Roos' best defensive forward. Of course, Thomas is also now the man North wants with the ball when it needs a crucial set shot converted. 

COULD DO BETTER: After recording his first top-10 finish in North's best and fairest last year, Sam Wright's fifth season at Aegis Park has been forgettable. Moved from defence to half-forward at the start of 2013, Wright played 11 of North's first 12 games, averaging less than 10 possessions a match and kicking just five goals before being dropped to the VFL. North recently reaffirmed its faith in Wright, re-signing him to the end of 2015. It is now up to the utility to justify that faith. - Nick Bowen

PORT ADELAIDE

THE BIG IMPROVER: Chad Wingard. In just his second season of AFL football Wingard is in potential All Australian form and has already become one of the most important players at the Power, certainly the most exciting. He's averaging 22 touches a game in 2013, up almost 10 a match from his debut season. Importantly too he's booted two goals a game, four times the number from last year. At just 19, Wingard looks destined to become one of the club's greats.

COULD DO BETTER: John Butcher. Injury hampered Butcher's start to the season; a broken bone in his hand curtailed an otherwise reasonable pre-season. But even since his fitness returned, the 22-year-old hasn't shown enough for a guy on whom the Power are so keen. He's contracted for a number of seasons after renewing it this year, but with just three goals from his three AFL games this season and uninspiring form in the SANFL, Butcher really needs to take the next step. - Harry Thring

Port Adelaide has discovered a beauty in young midfielder Chad Wingard. Picture: AFL Media

RICHMOND

THE BIG IMPROVER: Shane Edwards. He's spending more time in the midfield and is averaging nearly 20 disposals a game. He's ranked second in tackles at the club – an area the side has struggled in this year – behind Daniel Jackson, second in contested possessions behind Trent Cotchin and third in clearances behind Cotchin and Brett Deledio, and his delivery inside 50 has been impressive. It's the improvement of players like Edwards has helped the Tigers take a step forward.

COULD DO BETTER: In round 10, Damien Hardwick decided to try a new forward combination and brought Aaron Edwards into the team in favour of Luke McGuane. Since then, and despite McGuane's positive start to the season that involved multiple goals in the first five games, Edwards has held the spot of the third forward. McGuane has continued to find the goals in the VFL but he's clearly not doing something the coaches are after as he hasn't played seniors since round nine. - Jennifer Phelan

ST KILDA

THE BIG IMPROVER: Nick Riewoldt. In a year-on-year comparison, the star Saint has enjoyed a form spike in 2013, playing career-best football at times despite his team's woes. The captain is yet to be held goalless, booting 34 for the season to stake All Australian claims. However, the biggest area of improvement on 2012 has been Riewoldt's aerial presence, averaging 9.8 marks per game (ranked No.2 in the AFL) compared to 6.6 last season.

COULD DO BETTER: Nick Dal Santo. The veteran midfielder has been a consistent performer for St Kilda over 12 seasons, but there have been more lapses this year than previously. Still one of the Saints leading ball-winners, averaging 23.2 possessions per game, he has been less damaging and susceptible to taggers, most notably against Collingwood in round six. Coach Scott Watters labeled the 29-year-old's season "inconsistent" and has flirted with the idea of playing him more regularly across half-back. - Nathan Schmook

SYDNEY SWANS 

THE BIG IMPROVER: Dan Hannebery. The young midfielder commented during 2012 he wasn't yet good enough to warrant a tag from the opposition. That is no longer the case. Hannebery now finds himself tagged most weeks and is emerging as a leader in one of the AFL's deepest midfields. The 22-year-old showed his toughness and ability in last year's Grand Final victory. His average disposals has risen in each of his five seasons to a career-best 26.1 this year and he is now comfortably in the elite category. 

COULD DO BETTER: Lewis Jetta. Now sidelined by a shin problem, the speedster was well down on his stunning 2012 campaign before getting injured. He was named as a substitute against St Kilda in round five, which temporarily helped, before his form again tailed off. Thirteen times last season he managed multiple-goal games to finish with a team-high 45 for the year. This year, he has just seven goals through 10 games, with a best of two against the Brisbane Lions. - James Dampney

WEST COAST

THE BIG IMPROVER: Josh Kennedy. Eric Mackenzie and Chris Masten could both stake a claim but Kennedy has elevated himself among the elite power forwards in the AFL. He was the Eagles' leading goalkicker in 2011 and an All Australian nominee that season. Injury restricted him in 2012 but in 2013 he is leading the Coleman Medal race and has been a shining light in an inconsistent West Coast side. Kicked the match-winner against Adelaide in round 15 to boost the club's finals chances.

COULD DO BETTER: Adam Selwood. The 2006 premiership player has been one of John Worsfold's most trusted lieutenants over his 11-year career. Injury has plagued the 29-year-old in 2013 and when he has played he has been exposed for pace. Selwood is 15 games away from 200 but whether he gets there or not may depend on how he recovers from his ongoing back issues.  - Alex Malcolm

West Coast forward Josh Kennedy has taken his game to another level this year. Picture: AFL Media

WESTERN BULLDOGS

THE BIG IMPROVER: Michael Talia is showing what he can do in defence, earning the round 15 NAB AFL Rising Star nomination off the back of a 32-posession game against Greater Western Sydney. Talia spent time in the VFL working on his craft earlier this year, and had to fight his way into the side. He's starting to reap the rewards. 

COULD DO BETTER: Mitch Wallis. The young midfielder has found it difficult to hold his spot in the team, and isn't having the impact the club would expect. He had 15 disposals against the Giants – not enough against a side made up of kids around his age. - Jacqui Reed

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