Sam Durham and Izak Rankine in action during the match between Adelaide and Essendon at Adelaide Oval in round six, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

SAM DURHAM embodies the changing face of Essendon's midfield, as the Bombers hope to finally drive their way to September success.

The 22-year-old former winger has been entrusted with much greater time on the inside this season, picking up single coaches' votes against Hawthorn and Sydney and the full 10 when he shut down Western Bulldogs superstar Marcus Bontempelli and won his own footy to boot.

Durham is averaging 18.3 disposals, 4.7 tackles and 3.7 clearances, all career-high numbers as Essendon's revamped midfield continues to build.

The Bombers' average clearance differential has flipped from -1.1 (12th overall) in 2023, to 5.6 this season, the second-highest in the League.

While that doesn't necessarily correlate to instant success (ladder-leading Geelong and Greater Western Sydney sit among the bottom rungs in the stat), more broadly speaking, it's indicative of a much-improved engine room which is giving its forwards first use of the footy.

Against Collingwood, Essendon was simply unstoppable charging out of the middle in the first quarter, led by Jake Stringer as the team kicked six goals in lightning fashion.

The return of Peter Wright to the forward line led Stringer to dramatically increase his midfield time, attending 75 per cent of centre bounces, compared to 24 per cent the week prior, and none at all in rounds one to three.

Essendon's Jake Stringer gets a handball away against Collingwood on Anzac Day, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

"It's been different, playing more of an inside role so I can manage what I bring to the team. On the wing, you're sort of hemmed in, if the ball's going to come out there or not. I can bring that grunt around the ball and help get it forward," Durham told after the draw.

"I love it. Love being in there with Zach (Merrett), Darcy (Parish) and Stringer, they're a good bunch of blokes in there.

"The coaches have been pretty confident in me to go to [star opposition players], and use my strengths on them. It's not so much a tag role, but work off them and not be consumed by them.

"Through juniors I was more inside, then through 'Bushies' (Murray Bushrangers' under-18 side) I got pushed out because I wasn't big enough. You do your apprenticeship on the wing before you get there. It's good I'm in there now."

Sam Durham celebrates a goal during the match between the Western Bulldogs and Essendon at Marvel Stadium in round five, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

The addition of former Port Adelaide winger Xavier Duursma has in part allowed Durham to spend more time on the inside, while Nic Martin is now playing at half-back, with Dyson Heppell moving up in his place.

Durham isn't the only fresh face in the centre-bounce mix, with Archie Perkins featuring prominently until he injured his hamstring in round five.

Centre Bounce Attendance – percentage of time within games played

  2024 ATTENDANCE (%) 2023 ATTENDANCE (%)

Zach Merrett

79 (seven games)

74 (22)

Will Setterfield

76 (three)

62 (10)

Darcy Parish

68 (five)

81 (18)

Archie Perkins

64 (four)

23 (23)

Todd Goldstein

59 (seven)

North Melbourne

Sam Durham

51 (six)

0 (22)

Sam Draper

48 (six)

66 (14)

Jye Caldwell

33 (seven)

33 (21)

Jake Stringer

18 (seven)

37 (17)

Ben Hobbs

9 (six)

35 (18)

Andrew Phillips


47 (20)

Dylan Shiel


46 (12)

Nick Bryan


42 (eight)

Todd Goldstein has replaced the retired Andrew Phillips in the ruck, with the ageless former Roo once again in good form.

Brodie Grundy competes with Todd Goldstein during the match between Sydney and Essendon at SCG in round two, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

After a slower start to the year (taking to the field for the first time in round four after a hamstring injury), Parish is starting to hit his stride through the middle.

The dependable Don averaged just 5.3 AFL player rating points over his first four games, but it rose dramatically to 17.4 against the Pies, due to more damaging disposal.