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Boys of summer: Who needs a big pre-season?

Prodigal son Gary Ablett has to prove he was worth the Cats' investment - AFL,Adelaide Crows,Brisbane Lions,Carlton Blues,Collingwood Magpies,Essendon Bombers,Fremantle Dockers,Geelong Cats,Gold Coast Suns,GWS Giants,Hawthorn Hawks,Melbourne Demons,North Melbourne Kangaroos,Port Adelaide Power,Richmond Tigers,St Kilda Saints,Sydney Swans,West Coast Eagles,Western Bulldogs
Prodigal son Gary Ablett has to prove he was worth the Cats' investment

WHETHER they are stars or fringe players, there are plenty of AFL footballers who need to have a big pre-season – and to follow that up with an even bigger season proper – either to preserve or enhance their reputations, or to simply press a case for remaining on a club list. reporters take a look at each club and nominate the players who have the most at stake over the summer and beyond.

With rebounding defender Brodie Smith set to miss most of the season recovering from a torn ACL, there's an opportunity for Curtly Hampton to become a regular in the side. Hampton played the first nine games this year before an ankle injury forced him to spend three months on the sideline. He moved to the midfield, but showed during his time with Greater Western Sydney he can be effective across half-back. Hampton is off-contract at the end of 2018 and needs a big season to earn himself a new deal. - Lee Gaskin 

One of the hardest workers at the club, Mitch Robinson missed the final four months of last season with a foot injury. He has earned every dollar he's been paid since the Lions threw him a lifeline, finishing equal first (2015) and second (2016) in best and fairest counts before the 2017 setback. However, with the Lions trying to bring through their young players, the 28-year-old has a fight on his hands to win a regular spot, either as a defensive small forward or inside midfielder. Charlie Cameron comes to the club, and Jarrod Berry, Hugh McCluggage and Rhys Mathieson will be given every chance in the midfield. There's a spot for Robinson, but he needs a big pre-season to earn it. He's returned to training two weeks ahead of schedule to do everything possible. - Michael Whiting 

Injury setbacks have hampered the progress of Harry McKay in his two seasons at Ikon Park. After a stress fracture in his back and a bout of illness restricted him to seven VFL appearances in 2016, he made his senior debut in round 18 this year and managed only one more game before succumbing to a season-ending toe injury. While it generally takes longer for larger blokes to develop than smaller players and he turns 20 on Christmas eve, the No.10 pick in the 2015 NAB AFL Draft appears to have all the necessary tools to become the key forward the Blues need so badly, and next season looms as a crucial year for the 'Big H'. - Howard Kotton   

It will be a sheepish Jamie Elliott who rolls into the club for the start of pre-season after being arrested in the early hours of the morning after Derby Day for urinating in a bin. Elliott was fined for being drunk in a public place, with further punishment likely coming once he fronts those in power at the Pies. Off-field stuff aside, Elliott struggled on and off with ankle problems this year that started right back in the pre-season after he missed all of 2016 with a back injury. He was sorely missed then, which was demonstrated in the big moments he enjoyed in 2017, but he'll want to ensure the sort of summer that sets him up for a consistent run at form and doesn't produce the sort of injury that lingers for months this time around. - Jennifer Phelan

Jamie Elliott will be a chastened man after his off-season slip up. Picture: AFL Photos

Plenty of hopes will be placed upon Kyle Langford and Jayden Laverde next year, in the pair's fourth season at Essendon. There will be more opportunities for Langford through the midfield, too, with some senior bodies having left the club and the former Northern Knight keen to be a ball-winner under the ruckman's nose. He hasn't been able to string together consistent games at senior level yet but a big pre-season could put him among their band of better midfield options. Injury hurt Laverde last year but he's exciting and there's a spot there for him if he wants to take it. Jackson Merrett recently signed a contract extension to stay at Essendon and after not breaking into the senior side last season will need to lift his output to make a better shot of things. - Callum Twomey

Hayden Ballantyne earned a one-year contract for 2018, but the small forward will need to fight for his position more than ever as the Dockers look to the future. After a career-best 49 goals in 2014, which saw him named All Australian, Ballantyne has kicked 52 goals from 45 games, including just 11 last season (his lowest return since 2009). An elite small forward at his best, with terrific goal sense, the 30-year-old is at the end of his career at a rebuilding club. To earn selection he will need to bang the door down and convince the match committee there is more to gain by adding his experience to the forward line than playing a younger teammate. A big pre-season is a must. - Nathan Schmook   

His arrival back in his home town has been a huge talking point this off-season, and now it's up to Gary Ablett to show that the measures required to bring him home were worthwhile. His credentials speak for themselves, but the fact he hasn't played close to a full season since 2013, and turns 34 in May, means he'll have to prove his body can still hold up. The Cats didn't have to completely sell the farm to get him in the end, (it cost them an end of first-round pick and future second-rounder), but it did all but rule them out of potential bids for Jack Watts and Jake Stringer. Ablett will now want to put a good summer together to ensure he can spend time in the midfield alongside Patrick Dangerfield and Joel Selwood in 2018, and prove he was worth the investment. - Jennifer Phelan  

One of the most valuable players on the Suns' list, Rory Thompson is also one of their most unreliable. The lanky defender played just seven games last season as a combination of quad and hamstring injuries cruelled his year. It's a theme that has dogged his career. Thompson even made the long flight to Shanghai to play Port Adelaide, only to be withdrawn minutes before the game with an aggravation of his quad problem. Jack Leslie is breathing down his neck for a spot, and Thompson needs to do everything possible to get on the ground for a big majority of games in 2018. If the Suns are to surprise and climb the ladder, he'll be a big reason why. - Michael Whiting 

He has no doubt wanted to be the dominant big man at the Giants, and with Shane Mumford a surprise post-season retirement, now's the time for Rory Lobb. The ruckman did a good job in the semi and preliminary finals after Mumford hurt his ankle, but he can't afford to be complacent over summer with the mindset the No.1 spot is all his. Dawson Simpson had a good year in the NEAFL, youngster Matthew Flynn is coming along nicely and Lachie Keeffe has arrived from Collingwood and is slated to offer back-up ruck cover. Lobb is in the box seat, but will need to work hard to stay there. - Jennifer Phelan

Jaeger O'Meara was Hawthorn's big name recruit in 2017, but his troublesome knee didn't do him any favours at his new home. The 23-year-old was restricted to just six games for the season, with many questioning whether the Hawks had made an error in recruiting the former Sun. But the midfielder's final game of the year had the brown and gold faithful excited. O'Meara moved superbly and showed just why the Hawks lured him to Waverley with 25 disposals, 11 tackles and five clearances. He needs a huge pre-season, and an uninterrupted one at that. If the 2013 NAB AFL Rising Star can achieve that and stay off the injury list, then the football world will hopefully get to see just how good this youngster can be. And who knows, it may just propel the Hawks back up the ladder. - Nat Edwards 

After a tough first season as a Hawk, Jaeger O'Meara needs an uninterrupted run. Picture: AFL Photos

Angus Brayshaw is sometimes the forgotten man in the Demons' prized group of up-and-comers. Some feared the hard-nosed midfielder could be lost to football when he suffered his fourth concussion in 12 months in May. But Brayshaw returned in the VFL after seven weeks off, then made it back for the final three AFL rounds. His first game in the top flight again saw him gather 26 disposals (10 contested) in a new half-back role, but he spent time in the middle in round 23. There is significant competition for attention at Melbourne, with Clayton Oliver, Christian Petracca and Jack Viney among the AFL's brightest young talents. Petracca, of course, was taken at No.2 in the 2014 NAB AFL Draft, one selection ahead of Brayshaw. Brayshaw, who will be 22 by the start of next season, doesn't crave the spotlight like Petracca, but will be keen to put in a big pre-season and remind everyone he belongs in their company. - Marc McGowan

Todd Goldstein faces an unmistakable challenge to his hold on the Kangaroos' No.1 ruck mantle from emerging big man Braydon Preuss. Preuss, 22, shapes as the future of North's ruck division after a breakthrough 2017 season, with the Roos reaffirming their faith in the Queenslander last month, re-signing him until the end of 2020. To retain his senior spot in 2018, Goldstein needs to reverse his form slide since his 2015 All Australian season. The 29-year-old remains an effective tap ruckman but his influence around the ground has fallen markedly over the past two seasons, particularly his contested marking. Goldstein needs to rediscover that part of his game over the pre-season, when he must also get the better of Preuss in their head-to-head clashes, both in drills and match practice. Because if coach Brad Scott believes there is little separating the pair at the end of this summer, we expect the rebuilding Roos will err on the side of youth for round one. - Nick Bowen 

The Power threw former Melbourne co-captain Jack Trengove a lifeline when they picked him up as a delisted free agent on a one-year deal. Trengove adds depth to the Power's midfield unit behind fellow new arrival Tom Rockliff, Ollie Wines, Travis Boak, Brad Ebert, Chad Wingard and Sam Powell-Pepper. Trengove played only two games for the Demons this year, but showed great strength in fighting back from a persistent foot injury that cost him most of the 2014 and 2015 seasons. The South Australian will be keen to repay the Power's faith and prove he still has what it takes to play at the elite level. - Lee Gaskin 

The challenge has been set for premiership defender Nathan Broad, who must now fight to regain his spot after missing the first three matches of next season. A club-imposed suspension for distributing a photograph of a topless woman without her permission will give others an opportunity to settle themselves in Richmond's back six. Oleg Markov, Reece Conca, Jayden Short and Corey Ellis are smaller running options, but all will be pushing for selection in half-back roles, putting pressure on Broad. A big summer would send the right message to the match committee that he will be ready to fill the role he made his own in the second half of 2017 when his suspension is served. Putting his head down and working hard is the best way to repay his club. - Nathan Schmook 

It will be a big pre-season for Paddy McCartin. A huge hole has been left by the retired Nick Riewoldt and the No.1 draftee from 2014 has the size and presence to fill that role. At 21, it is tough to expect too much from him, but McCartin can become a consistent contributor next season after just five matches this year. His main problem has been concussions and he will use the pre-season to refine his technique when attacking the contest. The silver lining from his last head knock was he was forced to work on his running, which saw him become much fitter and shed a few kilograms. - Dinny Navaratnam

The heat will be on Kurt Tippett but unfortunately for him, the big man has already suffered a setback. He carried a left ankle injury through 2017 that required surgery and while he is expected to be fit for round one next year, he will be on limited duties through pre-season. At his best, the 30-year-old can offer plenty in the ruck or up forward, but it is hard to believe the former Crow can regain his best form. The Swans need him to though – Tippett is contracted until the end of 2020 and the club's list is poised to land a flag, so will need all its guns firing. - Dinny Navaratnam

Kurt Tippett has already suffered a setback ahead of a crucial pre-season. Picture: AFL Photos

Chris Masten was dropped for the first time in almost six years last season in a worrying sign for the midfielder, who was sacrificed after round 10 as the Eagles searched for a spark. He played nine of the next 12 games in the WAFL and was an emergency for the Eagles' two finals. Well established as one of the club's best runners, he needs to focus on improving his ball-use over a big summer. If he can do that and become a more damaging player with the ball in hand, he should regain his place in a midfield that will be without retired pair Sam Mitchell and Matt Priddis. - Nathan Schmook 

It looms as a make or break season for Kieran Collins, as the key defender has played only one senior game in two seasons at Whitten Oval. The hulking 20-year-old, who is nicknamed 'Dad' due to his mature looks, has shown good form in the VFL, but only received a one-year contract extension back in June. The Dandenong Stingrays product has worked hard on his agility so he has the ability to play on smaller opponents. The Dogs gave away pick 11 (Charlie Curnow) to Carlton for picks 25 (Josh Dunkley) and 26 (Collins) in the 2015 NAB AFL Draft to secure him, so the club will be hoping he pushes for senior selection on a regular basis in 2018. - Ryan Davidson