IN ONE of Essendon's darkest seasons, Zach Merrett emerged as a beacon of light.

Playing as a 20-year-old in a side stocked with top-ups and missing 12 of his Bomber teammates including midfield mainstays Jobe Watson and Dyson Heppell, Merrett had 30-plus disposals on 10 occasions.

As stand-in skipper against Gold Coast in round 21, he earned 38 touches in a best afield display that delivered the Bombers' second win for the season.

While his makeshift team struggled to a wooden spoon, Merrett averaged career-highs in disposals (29.9), tackles (6.2), inside 50s (4.9), clearances (4.3) and contested possessions (10.4).

Zach Merrett's 2016

22 games19 Brownlow votes
Essendon best and fairestThird youngest player to captain Essendon

He finished the year with a soaring reputation, and his quality has been recognised by his fellow players with the No.28 ranking in the AFL Players' Top 50.

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

With Watson and Heppell back to bolster the Bombers, the question for Merrett in 2017 is whether he can further improve his game in a more experienced midfield unit.

The Cobden export kicked just seven goals last season and the Dons believe that is one area of his game that he can take to a new level.

Can Zach Merrett build on his breakout form in 2016? Picture: AFL Photos

Merrett was also mentored by dual Brownlow medallist and West Coast and Carlton champion Chris Judd during 2016.

Judd worked with Merrett on his preparation, his temperament within games as well as his leadership style.

Named as vice-captain alongside Cale Hooker, Merrett's determination and work ethic, two qualities Judd had in spades, appear set to have a large say in Essendon's fortunes in 2017.

- Ben Guthrie

30. Jeremy Cameron 

Last year's ranking: 33
Official AFL Player Rating: 126
Debut: 2012
Games: 93
AFL Fantasy value: $386,000

Sitting out the first four games of the season with suspension didn't stop the accurate forward from booting 53 goals and topping the Giants' goal-kicking for the fifth straight year, as well as finishing seventh for the Coleman Medal. After being prolific in the club's first final, the left-footer went missing against the Western Bulldogs in the prelim and will want to atone for that in 2017.

29. Lachie Neale

Last year's ranking: -
Official AFL Player Rating: 34
Debut: 2012
Games: 92
AFL Fantasy value: $671,000

The Fremantle ball magnet shoots to 29th spot in the AFL Players' Top 50 after a phenomenal 2016 season. Neale racked up 737 disposals last year – the most recorded by Champion Data – at an average of 33.5 per game. He was a shining light during the Dockers' annus horribilis, stepping up in the absence of Nat Fyfe to lead Freo's midfield brigade. Neale was rewarded with his maiden club champion award, polled 20 votes on Brownlow night – 16 more than any other teammate – and was named in the All Australian 40-man squad.

28. Zach Merrett

Last year's ranking: -
Official AFL Player Rating: 32
Debut: 2011
Games: 106
AFL Fantasy value: $710,000

27. Shaun Burgoyne 

Last year's ranking: 34
Official AFL Player Rating: 37
Debut: 2002
Games: 319
AFL Fantasy value: $520,000

He might have passed 300 games and turned 34 last year, but the four-time premiership player showed no signs of slowing down – a fact recognised by his peers with a seven-point jump in the AFL Players' Top 50. He played all 24 of the Hawks' games, which took his consecutive streak to 83, and demonstrated his flexibility with time spent all over the ground, though predominantly in defence. He averaged 5.6 tackles and nudged 20 disposals a game, and showcased his precision by foot, with just nine unforced turnovers across the season.

26. Dyson Heppell

Last year's ranking: - (suspended)
Official AFL Player Rating: 216
Debut: 2011
Games: 106
AFL Fantasy value: $512,000

Essendon is the great unknown in 2017 and so too is whether Heppell, 24, can return to the top of his game after a year on the sidelines. Suspended for last year's AFL Players' Top 50, Heppell reached a career high of No.15 in the players' voting ahead of season 2015. That followed his 2011 NAB AFL Rising Star Award and All Australian selection in 2014. Taking over the club captaincy from Jobe Watson, Heppell is perfectly positioned to meet the challenge of re-establishing his standing as one of the game's pre-eminent onballers.

Catch up

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

40-36: Magpie Treloar soars in the spotlight

35-31: What rising Blue Patrick Cripps still needs to improve

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?