FREMANTLE coach Justin Longmuir ended 2023 with more confidence in his list and what it was capable of than he had at the same time 12 months earlier. It's a confidence that is set to be tested in 2024 though after an off-season of future investment rather than trading for immediate improvement.
Amid more player exits, the Dockers have used the Continental Tyres AFL Trade Period to bolster their hand in next year's AFL Draft, accruing three first-round selections that can be used on a deeper crop of youngsters or as tradable assets.
It's a patient strategy that could pay dividends, particularly if the Dockers are arming themselves for a raid on a talented West Australian like Sydney key forward Logan McDonald, who Fremantle is expected to go hard at.
Right now, however, prioritising 2025 will put pressure on existing players to find the improvement needed next year if the team is going to cover player losses and return to finals.
The exits are significant if not disastrous. Small forward Lachie Schultz joined Collingwood in exchange for the Magpies' 2024 first-round selection and pick No.34 this year, while wingman Liam Henry joined St Kilda in exchange for the Saints' 2024 second-round pick, with the club's swapping future fourth-rounders.
Free agent Joel Hamling is also gone for nothing after battling injuries and becoming a depth defender in recent seasons, but the Dockers' late push to keep him shows that there was value in having such a capable tall backman available.
Replacing Henry on the wing is the first challenge for Fremantle, and young defender Heath Chapman holds the key. The 21-year-old has the physical attributes to play the important role and is understood to be keen on the positional switch.
At 193cm and with an elite engine, he could play as a permanent wingman who can push back hard to help the defence and compete both in aerial and ground-level contests.
Longmuir has also proven over two years with Henry and Blake Acres that he can teach the role effectively to those who are unfamiliar with it, with both spending periods as high-level wingmen in their final seasons at Fremantle.
Assuming James Aish remains on one wing, the Dockers' other leading option to replace Henry is Nathan O'Driscoll, who has played the role at a good level in patches. Consideration could also be given to mid-season recruit Ethan Stanley, while Karl Worner and Corey Wagner are viewed ideally as half-backs.
Targeting local product Jeremy Sharp from Gold Coast through a trade was not seen as an option going into the Trade Period due to a lack of list spots, but it remains possible the Dockers could re-visit the 21-year-old as a solution on the wing after unexpected departures.
The Dockers have previously experimented with forward Michael Frederick as a wingman, but the loss of Schultz is expected to ensure the exciting goalkicker settles as a near permanent member of the forward line.
Replacing the 63 goals Schultz has kicked across the past two seasons – as well as his elite forward pressure – is another significant challenge for Fremantle, which will hope Tom Emmett's promising performances in rounds 23 and 24 are a sign of what's to come.
There is also significant scope for attacking improvement in Sam Switkowski, whose ability to rotate as a dynamic stoppage player has come at a cost to his goalkicking output (16 goals from 22 games in 2023).
Medium forward Sam Sturt's end to 2023 marked a turning point in his career, kicking 11 goals between rounds 18-22 and providing the sort of chasing pressure the Dockers had been asking of him before earning a regular senior spot.
Finally, the Dockers need to replace the insurance Hamling provided. Teenage pair Hugh Davies and Josh Draper are highly rated, but the club will look to build its key-position depth through drafting a mature-age option.
Executive general manager of football Peter Bell and list manager David Walls have each addressed the Dockers' retention issues this week, having lost Adam Cerra, Acres, Rory Lobb, Griffin Logue and now Schultz, Henry and Hamling in the past three off-seasons.
While disappointed to lose first-choice players, Walls highlighted the talented core of 14 players that remain and have signed on until at least 2026.
"That's the largest number of any club in the competition, so I feel like we've got a lot of players committed for the long-term, and that's really positive," Walls told Continental Tyres AFL Trade Radio on Tuesday.
"They're invested and 100 per cent in … (and) retaining your core group and the ones who are really going to carry you to a flag is what's crucial to where we put all our energy."
Without an injection of talent through the Trade Period, improvement from that young core needs to be Longmuir's non-negotiable in a critical pre-season for the club and the coach as player exits fade in the rear-view mirror.