IT HAD to be Christian Petracca.

When ranking the very best players heading into 2022, it is impossible to bypass Petracca at the very top.

The Melbourne superstar's epic and history-making Grand Final performance was the icing on a phenomenal season and stamped him as the game's best.

But the Demon didn't do it alone, as seen in our rankings of the best players in the AFL, with three of the first five coming from the red and blue and Melbourne having five players inside the top 21 spots.

The full list of AFL.com.au's most valuable players leading into this season has been revealed after Thursday's group from 50-26 was unveiled.

Fellow Grand finalists the Western Bulldogs also have six players in the top 50, headlined by Marcus Bontempelli and Jack Macrae, while we've backed Lachie Neale to get back to his 2020 Brownlow Medal form.

Sam Walsh's ankle surgery will keep him out of action for at least the first month of Carlton's season but injury appears the only obstacle between the Blues gun and superstardom.

AFL'S 50 MOST VALUABLE PLAYERS Check out Cal Twomey's rankings of 50-26

Walsh (below) was pick No.1 in the 2018 draft. At No.12 that year was Port Adelaide's Zak Butters, who some may think is too early at No.25 but has all the traits to be a midfield star.

This list is based on production in the past as well the potential of what can be achieved this coming season. Butters is one to watch this year and will be in All-Australian contention if he can piece together a full season after his serious foot injury last year.

The top 25 includes two ruckmen, three key defenders, two key forwards, one small forward and a smattering of the AFL's best and most impactful midfielders.  

25 Zak Butters (Port Adelaide)

It might be bold, but watch Butters dazzle this year with a nasty foot injury behind him. He has all the tricks to be one the competition's best midfielders – the spark, quick hands, courage, ball use and goal sense. An Alberton Oval favourite already, Butters is crucial to the Power's premiership push and was underdone late last year. When he has the ball, Port's possession retention jumps.

24 Darcy Moore (Collingwood)

Moore's importance to Collingwood can't be overstated: the key defender is critical in the Magpies' present and future as perhaps the most athletic, fun-to-watch backman in the AFL. Forget the part-time forward work, Moore gives the Pies a more settled look in the back half when he can kickstart their rebound. 

23 Tom Papley (Sydney)

Gun small forwards rank highly in terms of their pound-for-pound impact and Papley sits in that category. Kicked a career-best 43 goals last year and gets them in all sorts of ways: crumbs, marks, in space, in tight, over the shoulder, trickling through. You name it, Papley can do it around goal.

22 Darcy Parish (Essendon)

Finally was given a full-time midfield spot and showed he should have been there years before. Parish was the competition's most improved player in 2021, rising into the Therabody AFL All-Australian team and equal fifth in the Brownlow Medal. A clearance star who just knows how to get the ball and make it count. Has found himself comfortably in the elite midfielders of the competition.

21 Steven May (Melbourne)

His first season at the Demons in 2019 didn't go to plan but it has been a terrific run since then, culminating in last year's flag. May was a central figure to the Demons' success: hard, tough, penetrating with the ball and a vocal leader in the back half. Played the Toyota AFL Grand Final with a torn hamstring.

20 Hugh McCluggage (Brisbane)

Was dubbed the 'Rolls Royce' of his draft class and McCluggage hasn't missed a trick since joining the Lions at the end of 2016. McCluggage is something of a silent weapon: he can be unassuming but is damaging on the wing or through the midfield and if he can improve his accuracy in front of goal (he kicked 15.22 last year) then the sky is the limit.

Hugh McCluggage celebrates a goal during the round three clash between Collingwood and Brisbane at Marvel Stadium on April 1, 2021. Picture: Getty Images

19 Nic Naitanui (West Coast)

Champion Data ranks Naitanui as the No.1 player in the game for impact. He's a bit further back than that on this list but remains such a unique threat for the Eagles and was named an All-Australian for the third time last year. Naitanui makes things happen like no other ruckman. 

18 Jack Steele (St Kilda)

Steele has been St Kilda's best recruit of the past decade, perhaps longer. He has finished on the podium in the club's best and fairest the past four years and won the past two, is its standalone skipper this season and an All-Australian. Few have been as consistent as Steele across the AFL in the past two years.

17 Nat Fyfe (Fremantle)

Fyfe's body has been battered across his career and particularly the past two seasons, where he has managed 30 games total. But the Dockers superman can control games and will benefit from a growing Freo nucleus underneath him. The game's only current two-time Brownlow medallist.

16 Jake Lever (Melbourne)

How to split Lever from his defensive partner Steven May? It's difficult given how important they both were to Melbourne's success but Lever gets the edge. An intercept machine who has been worth every cent the Demons paid for him at the end of 2017.

15 Tom Stewart (Geelong)

If you didn't realise Stewart's influence at Geelong look at how the Cats fared without him at the end of last season. The three-time All-Australian has power, speed, aggression and controls games from defence. The ultimate versatile defender.

Geelong's Tom Stewart in action against North Melbourne in R5, 2021. Picture: Getty Images

14 Toby Greene (Greater Western Sydney)

Suspension will cost Greene – and the Giants – in the first five weeks of the season, with the club co-captain suspended until round six. Nevertheless, Greene is the Giants' spiritual leader and the best forward of his type in the League – a small tall who marks, roves, competes and steps up in big moments. Kicked 45 goals from 18 games last year.

13 Harry McKay (Carlton)

Came of age last year, booting 58 goals in a bottom-six team to claim the Coleman Medal. Has become more consistent in front of goal, has presence and can hit the scoreboard in a number of ways. Will want to hit his free agency season next year with even more goals alongside his name.

12 Zach Merrett (Essendon)

Merrett signed on for six years at the Bombers and ignored free agency and he has the potential to etch his name in club history as a red and black great. He secured his third best and fairest last year at 25 years old and notched a new club record for most disposals in a season (beating his previous best). Has trained as a part-time half-back but he remains a midfield gun.

11 Tom Hawkins (Geelong)

Hawkins' goals combined with his goal assists make him the most complete key forward in the game despite being about to enter his 15th AFL season. Coleman medallist in 2020, the runner-up last year and as reliable and durable as any big man in the competition.

02:55 Mins
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Top five goals: Hawkins' biggest and best in 2021

Geelong forward Tom Hawkins kicks 62 goals in 25 games

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10 Ollie Wines (Port Adelaide)

Polled a record-equalling 36 votes to become the Power's first Brownlow medallist and is the head honcho of a strong midfield brigade. Wines' past two seasons have been elite, with the Port Adelaide vice-captain a bullocking presence at stoppages and clearance star.

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Best of 2021: Wines wins the Brownlow Medal

Port Adelaide star Ollie Wines rewarded for a special and consistent season

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9 Lachie Neale (Brisbane)

All the noise out of the Lions is that Neale is back to his prolific, damaging best through the midfield. His 2020 season catapulted him into the game's elite and his injury-hit year last season hurt the Lions. One of the best first-possession midfielders in the game, Neale will have a point to prove after his floated trade request at the end of last year. 

8 Sam Walsh (Carlton)

Carlton hearts sank with the news Walsh would miss at least the opening month of the season after surgery for an ankle syndesmosis injury and with good reason. Walsh elevated himself to be a top-10 player last season with a best and fairest, All-Australian and top-five Brownlow Medal year. Relentless, consistent, tough and powerful, Walsh is staking a claim as one of the best No.1 picks ever.

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Club Champion: Highlights of Walsh's 2021 season

Carlton star Sam Walsh wins the John Nicholls Medal

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7 Patrick Dangerfield (Geelong)

Suspension and injury meant Dangerfield had the most interrupted season of his career in 2021. But he remains one of the AFL's best gamebreakers even with his 300th game on the horizon this season. Geelong will keep pushing for a flag while Dangerfield remains influential.

6 Jack Macrae (Western Bulldogs)

Macrae still doesn't get the kudos he deserves but as the competition's best ball-getter there are few who match his consistency and impact. A free agent this year, Macrae has won All-Australian selection the past three years and is so good at getting the footy opposition sides don't even bother trying to stop him. 

5 Max Gawn (Melbourne)

Not just a spiritual leader, now a successful one. Gawn brought the cup home to Melbourne and his five-goal preliminary final against the Cats summed up his massive influence around the ground. A five-time All-Australian, Gawn is the head of a competitive ruck group around the competition and isn't going anywhere soon.

4 Clayton Oliver (Melbourne)

Already a Melbourne great at 24, Oliver is a three-time best and fairest winner and one of the competition's hottest midfielders. Ultra-consistent, he super-charged the Demons' third-quarter rout of the Bulldogs in the Grand Final. A penetrating possession-winner who, as the shock bolter of the 2015 draft, is one of the best ever picks in football history.

3 Dustin Martin (Richmond)

The first serious injury of Martin's glittering career – a nasty kidney laceration – saw the superstar Tiger miss the last chunk of 2021. Plays the game on his terms and his terms usually win out: the best big-game player of all time will be hungry to bounce back after Richmond's drop last year. 

2 Marcus Bontempelli (Western Bulldogs)

When Bontempelli's third goal sailed through in the middle of the third quarter of last year's Grand Final, another level of greatness awaited the Bulldogs skipper. He was his side's best player in its premiership-decider defeat, is a four-time best and fairest and remarkably consistent. Booted a career-high 31 goals last year and is perhaps footy's hardest match-up. 

1 Christian Petracca (Melbourne)

Petracca's phenomenal Grand Final etches him in football and Melbourne history and he starts this season as the clear best player in the game. Powerful, explosive, damaging, robust, unstoppable – Petracca doesn't play a bad game and has lived up to every bit of hype attached to him. He might have a Brownlow Medal to go with his Norm Smith Medal and premiership medallion by the end of the season.

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Petracca writes history in the most powerful performance

Christian Petracca equals the record for most touches ever in an AFL Grand Final to deservedly claim the Norm Smith Medal

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