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The AFL's best midfields in 2016: Where does your team rank?

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 3: Matt Priddis of the Eagles tackles Sam Mitchell of the Hawks during the 2015 Toyota AFL Grand Final match between the Hawthorn Hawks and the West Coast Eagles at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Melbourne, Australia on October 3, 2015. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/AFL Media)
Sam Mitchell's Hawks triumphed over Matt Priddis' Eagles in 2015, but will that be the case in 2016?

DOES Hawthorn still have the best midfield in the competition or will it slide in 2016 as Luke Hodge, Sam Mitchell and Shaun Burgoyne approach footballing old age?

If Father Time catches up with the Hawks, which team will take over the No.1 midfield mantle?

The big-bodied Dockers? The seasoned Sydney Swans? Or will last season's runner-up West Coast have the required mix of inside grunt and outside run?

Or will a team from outside 2015's top eight leapfrog into top spot? Port Adelaide, say, with a fit Ollie Wines and Jared Polec? Or Geelong with its readymade recruits Patrick Dangerfield, Scott Selwood and Zac Smith?

These were just some of the questions pondered as we looked towards 2016 and tried to predict the strength of each team's midfield next season, eventually arriving at a list from No.1 (the best) to No.18.

In compiling our rankings, we relied on Champion Data statistics for 2015 on centre clearances, around-the-ground clearances, overall clearances, scores from clearances, hit-outs to advantage and midfield pressure acts.

All statistics were based on a team's differentials against its opponents rather than overall tallies.

We also analysed the quality of players in each team's midfield rotations, taking into account the number of A-grade talents and the potential A-listers.

We classified players such as Robbie Gray, Dustin Martin, Cyril Rioli and Shaun Burgoyne as midfielders, but appreciate Gray, Martin and Rioli could just as easily be classified as forwards and Burgoyne as a defender.

On the other hand, Brett Deledio was classified as a forward given he now spends the majority of his time in attack.

But enough of the preamble, here's who we see ruling the midfield roost next season: 

1. Hawthorn

Best starting midfield:
C: Isaac Smith, Sam Mitchell, Bradley Hill
Foll: Ben McEvoy, Luke Hodge, Jordan Lewis

Depth players: Shaun Burgoyne, Liam Shiels, Jonathon Ceglar, Cyril Rioli, Will Langford, Billy Hartung, Jonathan O'Rourke, Daniel Howe, Kieran Lovell, Brendan Whitecross, Zac Webster, Marc Pittonet, Kade Stewart*, Alex Woodward*, Conor Glass*


The reigning premiers still appear to have the best midfield in the AFL, one that's built around Mitchell, Lewis and Hodge commanding the stoppages. Hawthorn was ranked second in the competition in 2015 for clearances and points from clearances, but it was the Hawks' defensive work-rate that made them stand out from the chasing pack, with their midfield ranked No.1 for pressure acts. Coach Alastair Clarkson is unlikely to change his on-ball structure too much in 2016, but competition for spots will be hot with Langford, Howe, Hartung and O'Rourke all pushing for a regular senior berth. Despite the rising ages of stars Mitchell, Hodge and Burgoyne, we don't expect the Hawks to drop off next year. – Nat Edwards 

2. Fremantle

Best starting midfield:
C: Stephen Hill, Nat Fyfe, Harley Bennell
Foll: Aaron Sandilands, David Mundy, Lachie Neale

Depth players: Danyle Pearce, Tommy Sheridan, Michael Barlow, Nick Suban, Jack Hannath, Zac Clarke, Harley Balic, Connor Blakely, Matt de Boer, Brady Grey, Ed Langdon, Anthony Morabito*, Clancee Pearce, Lachie Weller

The Dockers were far and away the best clearance team in the AFL last season, but finished third in scores from clearances behind West Coast and Hawthorn. Goal scoring is the one knock on the Dockers' elite engine room, but the addition of former Sun Bennell should help that significantly. Freo has extraordinary depth in its on-ball division, which has made it hard in recent seasons for its talented youngsters to get a look in, but the Dockers have high hopes for Weller, in particular, in 2016. – Alex Malcolm 

3. Sydney Swans

Best starting midfield:
C: Dan Hannebery, Josh Kennedy, Kieren Jack
Foll: Kurt Tippett, Luke Parker, Tom Mitchell

Depth players:
Jarrad McVeigh, Ben McGlynn, Jake Lloyd, Harry Cunningham, Isaac Heeney, Callum Mills, Callum Sinclair, Toby Nankervis, Abe Davis, Jordan Dawson, Jordan Foote*, George Hewett, Jack Hiscox, Tyrone Leonardis, Harry Marsh*, Sam Murray*, Dan Robinson, Tom Derickx, Sam Naismith, Kyle Galloway*, Toby Nankervis

The Swans were ranked fourth for centre clearances and scores from clearances last season, which was no surprise given two-time club champion Kennedy led the competition for contested possessions and clearances. The Swans were also ranked second for pressure acts, thanks largely to tackling machines Kieren Jack and Parker. With dual All Australian Hannebery and emerging star Mitchell also in the mix, the Swans have an A-grade on-ball division. – Adam Curley 

4. Port Adelaide

Best starting midfield:
C: Brad Ebert, Robbie Gray, Hamish Hartlett
Foll: Patrick Ryder, Travis Boak, Ollie Wines

Depth players: Jared Polec, Matthew Lobbe, Matt White, Brendon Ah Chee, Karl Amon, Sam Colquhoun, Kane Mitchell*, Sam Gray, Will Snelling*, Jimmy Toumpas, Aaron Young, Billy Frampton

Port's on-ball brigade was hit hard by the injury-plagued 2015 seasons of Ollie Wines (wrist and shoulder) and Jared Polec (foot). Wines' long-term absence partially explained why Port finished 17th in the AFL for around-the-ground stoppages last season, while the Power also desperately missed Polec's run and carry. If the duo return to fitness and form in 2016, Ken Hinkley will once again have one of the most talented midfield divisions at his disposal. – Alex Malcolm 

5. Geelong

Best starting midfield:
C: Mitch Duncan, Joel Selwood, Mark Blicavs
Foll: Rhys Stanley, Patrick Dangerfield, Cameron Guthrie

Depth players: Scott Selwood, Jimmy Bartel, Jordan Murdoch, Zac Smith, Josh Caddy, Steven Motlop, George Horlin-Smith, Sam Menegola*, Jock Cornell*

The Cats struggled in the midfield in 2015. Duncan was plagued by injury for most of last season, while skipper Joel Selwood did his best to rally the troops but a heavy workload and unrelenting opposition attention left him exhausted by the end of the year. Geelong was ranked the worst clearance team in the competition in 2015, but the arrival of star midfielder Dangerfield and Selwood's younger brother Scott should give the Cats' engine room a tougher inside edge and propel them into top-four contention again. – NE 

6. West Coast

Best starting midfield:
C: Andrew Gaff, Matt Priddis, Lewis Jetta
Foll: Nic Naitanui, Elliot Yeo, Luke Shuey

Depth players: Jack Redden, Chris Masten, Dom Sheed, Scott Lycett, Mark Hutchings, Liam Duggan, Kane Lucas*, Jonathan Giles, Damien Cavka, Brant Colledge*, Kurt Mutimer, Luke Partington, Jordan Snadden*, Alec Waterman*

The Eagles were the AFL's No.1 team for scoring from clearances last season, largely due to the silver service ruckman Naitanui provided to the likes of Shuey and Gaff, allowing them to burst from stoppages untouched. West Coast has added more outside run through Jetta, while the addition of former Lion Redden will offset the loss of Scott Selwood's strong inside presence. There will be pressure on Lycett to step up as Naitanui's support ruck act after Callum Sinclair's move to the Sydney Swans. – AM

7. Collingwood

Best starting midfield:
C: Jack Crisp, Scott Pendlebury, Steele Sidebottom
Foll: Brodie Grundy, Adam Treloar, Dane Swan

Depth players: Taylor Adams, Jarrod Witts, Travis Varcoe, Levi Greenwood, James Aish, Jarryd Blair, Matthew Goodyear, Brent Macaffer, Tom Phillips, Brayden Sier, Josh Smith*, Josh Thomas*, Rupert Wills, Mason Cox*

The Magpies' midfield ranked third in the AFL for pressure acts last season, and seventh for clearances and scores from clearances. When you add Treloar into their starting line-up and Aish to their on-ball rotations, they will be even stronger in 2016. Swan is likely to play forward more next season given the Magpies' growing midfield depth, but he will still be thrown into the middle in the big moments. – AM 

8. North Melbourne

Best starting midfield:
C: Jamie Macmillan, Jack Ziebell, Nick Dal Santo
Foll: Todd Goldstein, Ben Cunnington, Andrew Swallow

Depth players: Ben Jacobs, Daniel Wells, Jed Anderson, Ryan Clarke, Trent Dumont, Will Fordham*, Sam Gibson, Brad McKenzie, Declan Mountford, Farren Ray*, Corey Wagner, Majak Daw*, Braydon Preuss*  

The Roos are well stocked for inside midfielders and boast the reigning All Australian ruckman, Todd Goldstein. They are light on for classy outside runners, however, with their ability to improve on consecutive preliminary final appearances largely dependent on Daniel Wells returning to full fitness and ex-Hawk Jed Anderson thriving in a new environment. We have left tagger Ben Jacobs out of the starting line-up for team balance, but expect him to again be a centre-square regular in 2016. – Nick Bowen

9. Richmond

Best starting midfield:
C: Brandon Ellis, Anthony Miles, Kamdyn McIntosh
Foll: Ivan Maric, Trent Cotchin, Dustin Martin

Depth players: Jacob Townsend, Corey Ellis, Shaun Grigg, Dan Butler, Jason Castagna*, Reece Conca, Nathan Drummond, Kane Lambert, Adam Marcon*, Connor Menadue, Andrew Moore, Jayden Short*, Mabior Chol*Shaun Hampson, Ivan Soldo*

The Tigers sought to bolster their inside midfield ranks this trade period after being smashed by North Melbourne at the stoppages in their elimination final loss. They missed their big target, Giant-turned-Magpie Adam Treloar, but picked up former Giant Townsend and ex-Power player Moore, who will add in-and-under depth. Cotchin and Martin are A-grade talents but need more support, while the Tigers' ruck division is dangerously reliant on Maric, who turns 30 in January. – NB 

10. Western Bulldogs

Best starting midfield:
C: Jason Johanissen, Tom Liberatore, Jack Macrae
Foll: Jordan Roughead, Mitch Wallis, Marcus Bontempelli

Depth players: Liam Picken, Luke Dahlhaus, Koby Stevens, Lin Jong, Lachie Hunter, Nathan Hrovat, Clay Smith, Will Minson, Tom Campbell, Tom Boyd, Josh Dunkley, Bailey Williams, Luke Goetz*

The Bulldogs boast a young and exciting midfield group, and in Liberatore will welcome back one of the competition's best clearance players in 2016. With Liberatore missing all of 2015 after undergoing a knee reconstruction, the Dogs finished a creditable ninth in clearances last season. However, they do have a genuine weakness in the ruck, finishing equal last in 2015 for hitouts to advantage, alongside Geelong and Essendon. Although the Bulldogs' raft of young on-ballers should continue to improve next season, the club's failure to secure a ruckman in October's trade period could come back to haunt them. – NE 

11. Greater Western Sydney

Best starting midfield:
C: Tom Scully, Callan Ward, Lachie Whitfield
Foll: Shane Mumford, Dylan Shiel, Stephen Coniglio

Depth players: Devon Smith, Toby Greene, Ryan Griffen, Josh Kelly, Steve Johnson, Rhys Palmer, Jacob Hopper, Matthew Kennedy, Paul Ahern, Jake Barrett, Jack Steele, Rory Lobb, Tom Downie, Dawson Simpson, Matthew Flynn

The Giants were without their No.1 ruckman, Mumford, and their most damaging midfielder, Shiel, for large chunks of last season. The loss of Mumford was particularly damaging, with GWS ranked in the bottom five of the competition for centre clearances and total clearances. With Mumford and Shiel expected to return to full fitness in 2016, and with their raft of youngsters benefitting from another pre-season, the Giants' midfield should rise up the rankings in 2016. – AC 

12. Adelaide

Best starting midfield:
C: Richard Douglas, Scott Thompson, Brodie Smith
Foll: Sam Jacobs, Rory Sloane, Brad Crouch

Depth players: Paul Seedsman, David Mackay, Nathan van Berlo, Rory Atkins, Matt Crouch, Cam Ellis-Yolmen, Dean Gore, Mitch Grigg, Riley Knight, Jarryd Lyons, Paul Hunter*, Luke Lowden, Reilly O'Brien*

Although the Crows salvaged a fair trade for Dangerfield, the midfield star's exit will hurt in the short-term. Adelaide was ranked third in the AFL for clearances last season, with Dangerfield the fifth-ranked player in the competition. For the Crows to remain strong at stoppages in 2016, veteran Thompson will have to stay fit and in form, and Brad Crouch will have to overcome his recent injury woes. Adelaide also needs to lift its midfield pressure acts, having been ranked 12th in this area in 2015. – NB 

13. Brisbane Lions

Best starting midfield:
C: Daniel Rich, Dayne Beams, Dayne Zorko
Foll: Stefan Martin, Tom Rockliff, Ryan Bastinac

Depth players: Mitch Robinson, Allen Christensen, Tom Bell, Sam Mayes, Claye Beams, Lewy Taylor, Nick Robertson, Ryan Lester, Jarrad Jansen, Ben Keays, Rhys Mathieson, Cian Hanley*, Billy Evans*, Trent West, Archie Smith*

The Lions' starting midfield is strong with Dayne Beams, Rockliff and ruckman Martin all A-graders, but it falls away from there. They were in the bottom half of the competition for clearances (11th) and scores from clearances (13th) last season, something recruits Bastinac and Bell should help address in 2016, while draftees Keays and Mathieson are both highly promising ball-winners. The Lions did well in October's trade period to cover the loss of Jack Redden (West Coast) and James Aish (Collingwood). – NE 

14. Gold Coast

Best starting midfield:
C: Matt Rosa, David Swallow, Jaeger O’Meara
Foll: Tom Nicholls, Gary Ablett, Dion Prestia

Depth players: Alex Sexton, Jesse Lonergan, Touk Miller, Michael Rischitelli, Aaron Hall, Adam Saad, Matt Shaw, Danny Stanley, Jack Martin, Jesse Lonergan, Mitch Hallahan, Brayden Fiorini, Josh Schoenfeld, Mackenzie Willis, Danny Stanley*, Darcy MacPherson*, Ryan Davis*, Peter Wright, Dan Currie, Keegan Brooksby

The Suns' preferred starting midfield was decimated by injury last season, with Ablett and Prestia missing most of the season and O'Meara sidelined all year. Consequently, they were ranked the worst midfield in the competition in 2015 when you combined point differentials for clearances (12th), scores from clearances (18th), hitouts to advantage (15th) and pressure acts (14th). If Ablett, Prestia and O'Meara are available for most of 2016, the Suns' midfield numbers will rise enormously. Former Eagle Rosa will also give Gold Coast another experienced head around the ball, but the Suns will miss Harley Bennell's elite run. – AC 

15. Melbourne

Best starting midfield:
C: Angus Brayshaw, Nathan Jones, Dom Tyson
Foll: Max Gawn, Bernie Vince, Jack Viney 

Depth players: Christian Petracca, Aaron vandenBerg, Jake Melksham, Tom Bugg, Jake Spencer, Jack Trengove, James Harmes, Matt Jones, Alex Neal-Bullen, Ben Newton, Clayton Oliver, Mitchell King, Viv Michie*, Max King*, Mitch White*

Melbourne's midfield stats from 2015 weren't great. The Demons were ranked in the League's bottom three for total clearances, scores from clearances and midfield pressure. There is still a heavy reliance on Bernie Vince and Nathan Jones to carry the load in the middle, but the emergence of Angus Brayshaw and Aaron vandenBerg has been encouraging. Add Christian Petracca and recruit Tom Bugg to the mix in 2016 and the Demons' engine room will improve. – NE 

16. St Kilda

Best starting midfield:
C: Leigh Montagna, Luke Dunstan, Jack Newnes
Foll: Billy Longer, David Armitage, Jack Steven

Depth players: Maverick Weller, Seb Ross, Blake Acres, Tom Curren, Nathan Freeman, Jade Gresham, Daniel McKenzie, Nick O'Kearney*, Bailey Rice, Tom Hickey, Jason Holmes*, Lewis Pierce

St Kilda's midfield is a work in progress, with senior hands Armitage, Montagna and Steven propping up an exciting batch of youngsters. Not surprisingly, the developing Saints finished 14th for clearances, scores from clearances and hitouts to advantage in 2015, but, in a positive sign for the future, fourth for pressure acts. Former Magpie Freeman and draftee Gresham will add much-needed run in time, but the Saints won't be putting any great expectations on them in 2016. – NB

17. Essendon

Best starting midfield:
C: Brent Stanton, Jobe Watson, David Zaharakis
Foll: Matthew Leuenberger, Brendan Goddard, Dyson Heppell

Depth players: Adam Cooney, Craig Bird, Heath Hocking, Ben Howlett, David Myers, Zach Merrett, Jackson Merrett, Travis Colyer, Martin Gleeson, Darcy Parish, Will Hams*, Ben Howlett, Alex Morgan, Tom Bellchambers, Shaun McKernan

With skipper Watson missing the second half of last season and Myers playing just two games, the Bombers were obliterated at stoppages, finishing second-last in the AFL for clearances and bottom four for scores from clearances. The arrival of Swans premiership player Bird will give Essendon's on-ball division another hard body, while exciting draftee Parish is likely to be blooded. The arrival of former Lion Leuenberger could be the biggest boost for the Bombers in 2016, however, as they finished equal last for hitouts to advantage last season. – AC

18. Carlton

Best starting midfield:
C: Kade Simpson, Patrick Cripps, Ed Curnow
Foll: Matthew Kreuzer, Bryce Gibbs, Marc Murphy

Depth players: Blaine Boekhorst, Sam Kerridge, Matthew Wright, Nick Graham, Dennis Armfield, David Cuningham, Billy Gowers*, Mark Whiley, Daniel Gorringe, Andrew Phillips, Cameron Wood* 

The Blues' starting midfield should be very competitive next season, especially if Gibbs bounces back from an injury-plagued 2015, but the lack of depth in their on-ball support cast will be exposed. Carlton will be banking on Boekhorst, Graham, Whiley and Gowers improving, while draftee Cuningham is an exciting prospect. The reality, however, is that the Blues still need to invest heavily in midfielders at forthcoming drafts. The inside work of Cripps and Murphy ensured Carlton was ranked fourth in the AFL for clearances in 2015, but it finished 16th for scores from clearances and last for midfield pressure acts. – NB