ESSENDON will take a cautious approach with No.1 pick Andrew McGrath in his debut season, with coach John Worsfold mindful of the injury issues suffered by young star Jaeger O'Meara after a hectic start to his career.
McGrath became the Bombers' first-ever opening choice when they selected him at last year's NAB AFL Draft following a brilliant season for Vic Metro and the Sandringham Dragons.
Recruiters widely assessed the 18-year-old as a prospect who should be able to transition smoothly to the top level given his pace, mature frame and competitive streak.
But Worsfold has picked the brain of Bombers assistant and former Gold Coast coach Guy McKenna about the workload given to the young Suns in their inaugural years in the competition, and is wary of putting McGrath at risk.
"I'm conscious that as good as Jaeger O'Meara was in his first couple of years, maybe his body wasn't ready to cope with those sort of demands. He's struggled for a couple of years and David Swallow has been a bit similar," Worsfold told AFL.com.au.
"I've tried to grill 'Bluey' on what his thoughts were because he had so many young players come in straight away. But then there's other young players like Dustin Martin who come in and play right away and he has hardly missed a beat.
"I've told [McGrath] that he's not out of selection for round one, but that I really want to make sure we're not overexposing him where at some point that the load will make him susceptible to a long-term injury."
O'Meara has not played a senior game in two years since suffering a serious patella injury before the 2015 season. Swallow has managed just six games in the same period dealing with his own knee troubles.
Worsfold tempered expectations on McGrath, saying the small rebounding defender was no certainty to line up for Essendon's season-opening game against Hawthorn.
"At the moment, he's done only just over half the workload of what the senior guys are doing and if Dyson Heppell had done that workload I'd be concerned about him going into round one," he said.
"We've got the opportunity now with match practice to assess how they're tracking with game loads, and I want to make sure [the first-year players] are ready to cope.
"He's good enough to play AFL now, but his body is not going to be strong enough to cope with a full season of AFL footy for another year or two. We're not saying he's a lock for sure."
McGrath finished his TAC Cup season averaging 32 disposals (12 contested) and seven clearances for the Dragons at 84 per cent efficiency. He moved into the midfield more in the second half of the season, and that will be the plan at Essendon as well in coming years.
But Worsfold said there would be no rush for that shift.
"I spoke to him about Gary Ablett the other day, and I think it was probably five years he sat in a forward pocket. Nobody ever says, 'They left him in a forward pocket for too long'," he said.
"It was perfect management. He's had eight or 10 years as the best midfielder in the competition. If they had have tried to rush him and threw him in the midfield early in his career at Geelong maybe it wears him out and he doesn't have the same career.
"There's no timeframe on that [midfield move for McGrath]."