Darcy Parish in action during Essendon's training session at the NEC Hangar on January 22, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

ESSENDON skipper Zach Merrett has sent a warning to the rest of the competition – don't sleep on Darcy Parish.

Merrett praised the pre-season of his midfield teammate, saying he was raising the standards for the rest of the young line, a number of which are jostling for spots not only in the 22, but in the engine room itself.

"Darcy Parish has probably been our best trainer throughout the pre-season," Merrett said.

You look for guys like (Ben) Hobbs, (Jye) Caldwell and (Sam) Durham to come through and drive our group forward.

"But when you have an All-Australian who has finished in the top 3-4 of the Brownlow, coming back fitter and stronger – I don't know if anyone was here on Saturday (match sim), but he was best on ground by a long, long way.

"He'll drive this group forward and force the guys to level up and try to take his spot, in a way, with a bit of healthy competition.

"I think that's probably the biggest question right now for coaches. It's a great thing having a lot more talent, and a lot more coming through, and balancing that is difficult at times. Do you keep playing the same guys, or do you give guys opportunities?

"There's always obviously injuries and form throughout the season, which will change that mix. I think at the moment, two praccy matches will be great insight into where the coaches see it, and I think they'll then adjust for round one."

Merrett – who has dropped a few kilograms to help him cover the ground more easily – said there had been a strong focus on elite training habits over the off-season.

"I think players are sick of losing. The competition's so tight, we know a percentage here and there could be the difference between making finals, making the top four or the bottom four," Merrett said.

"We realised that late in the year when we just got over the two bottom teams in the comp, we really struggled to get those four points. Then we got blown away by some top teams.

"Hopefully guys improving individually, putting on size or getting better, more fitter, understand the game more, will allow coaches to pull more triggers in round one when we put it all together."

Zach Merrett in action during Essendon's training session at the NEC Hangar on January 22, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Essendon has added powerful key defender Ben McKay to its squad in an attempt to steady a somewhat leaky backline.

"It's been a constant chat, the fans are probably sick of hearing we need to work on our defence, because we do," Merrett said.

"I think we improved from 18th to 15th, which doesn't seem like a big deal, but I think we were able to slow teams down a lot more, but they were still able to get through us and score when they went forward.

"We need to keep bridging that gap. It doesn't mean we need to be No.1, but we certainly need to bring that gap down to be able to balance our full game plan.

"I love watching the top teams, because you know what you're going to get. Collingwood's going to play that fast chaos game and come forward and defend, and Brisbane's 6-6-6, contested, combative team that have done it now for five or six years. You know what you're getting when you turn the tv on. So we're not there yet, but 2024 hopefully gets us closer to that."