WHEN dual Brownlow medallist Chris Judd ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament 10 rounds into the 2015 season, the midfield baton was handed to his protégé Patrick Cripps.

Just 20 years old at that point and with 11 games to his name, Cripps didn't flinch and lifted his clearance average from 5.5 a game to 7.2 without Judd, taking responsibility for the Blues' stoppage game.

He flourished, winning the club's best and fairest in just his second season and finishing runner-up to Melbourne's Jesse Hogan in the NAB AFL Rising Star award.

Ahead of the new season, Cripps has been recognised by his peers as one of the game's elite, vaulting into 32nd spot in the AFL Players' Top 50.

Who's next? Check out the rest of the AFL Players' Top 50 as they are revealed

So is Cripps on the path to being the Blues' next superstar, succeeding the man who won the 2010 Brownlow Medal and has provided regular guidance since the midfielder arrived at Ikon Park?

The young West Australian has all the ingredients. He is revered by teammates for relentless work ethic and determination, and he is a young leader, seen by many as the club's next captain.

Cripps (l) averaged almost 17 contested possessions per game in 2016. Picture: AFL Photos

As a player, he is already unrivalled as a pure clearance winner, averaging an AFL high 8.8 per game in 2016 (including 3.5 centre clearances, equal No.1 in the AFL with Patrick Dangerfield).

The next step for Cripps is to evolve as a distributor who kicks more and uses the ball in more damaging ways, having averaged 18.6 handballs to 8.4 kicks last year.

Build that aspect of his game and the Blues, who re-signed Cripps until the end of 2019 earlier this year, could well have their newest superstar.

- Nathan Schmook

35. Jack Steven

St Kilda
Last year's ranking: 45
Official AFL Player Rating: 14
Debut: 2009
Games: 134
AFL Fantasy value: $630,000

One of the game's top midfielders, Steven won St Kilda's best and fairest in 2016 for the second year running after his best season. The 26-year-old has the ability to win the contested ball and burst from stoppages, averaging 5.5 clearances a game last year and 5.3 inside 50s. Though Steven has earned the players' nod with an 11-spot jump in the AFL Players' Top 50, his defensive game remains underrated. He ranks well above the AFL average with 5.6 tackles a game

34. Jarryd Roughead

Last year's ranking: 11
Official AFL Player Rating: 154
Debut: 2005
Games: 231
AFL Fantasy value: $373,000

Roughead's return to football from a cancer scare shapes as an early contender for the best story of 2017. A year out of the game has led to a dip in Roughead's standing among his peers – down from 11th spot last year – but if signs in the JLT Community Series are anything to go by the new Hawthorn captain will rocket back up the standings. The 30-year-old was sorely missed in the Hawks' attack last season, but Alastair Clarkson now has more tall options and Roughead seems likely to be unleashed more often in midfield, where he can use his power, elite kicking and decision-making to devastating effect.

33. Nathan Jones

Last year's ranking: 42
Official AFL Player Rating: 79
Debut: 2006
Games: 69
AFL Fantasy value: $593,000

Jones fought through the years of despair and is now ready to enjoy the spoils in Melbourne's pursuit of sustained success. For years, the midfielder was his club's best player in a bad team. Now, through the development of several youngsters in the midfield, including his co-captain Jack Viney - a new entrant in the AFL Players' Top 50 - Jones does not have to do it all himself. The 29-year-old produced one his most consistent seasons in 2016, achieving career-highs in disposals and uncontested possessions. It's likely Jones will spend time at half-back during this season underlining Melbourne's improved depth

32. Patrick Cripps

Last year's ranking: -
Official AFL Player Rating: 44
Debut: 2014
Games: 44
AFL Fantasy value: $601,000

31. Luke Hodge

Last year's ranking: 5
Official AFL Player Rating: 50        
Debut: 2002
Games: 286
AFL Fantasy value: $525,000

A fractured arm in the season-opener and knee surgery after round six wasn't an ideal start to Luke Hodge's campaign last year, but the Hawks' warrior bounced back to form and was among the best in both finals, leaving no doubts he could go around again in 2017. While it has the hallmarks of a farewell season this year after handing over the captaincy reins, don't expect the proud four-time premiership champion to go out without a bang. Hodge, who needs 14 appearances to reach the 300-game milestone, averaged 23 touches last season, and his versatility to play half-back, forward or midfield – not to mention his leadership - remains invaluable to coach Alastair Clarkson.

Catch up

50-41: Tough-as-nail Demon's time arrives

40-36: Magpie Treloar soars in the spotlight

Who's next?

• Check out the rest of the AFL Players' Top 50 as they are revealed

• Breakout stars: The players name the seven most likely to explode

Who topped the count in 2016?