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Breaking out: The players set to explode in 2016

GEELONG, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 26: Jordan de Goey of the Magpies runs with the ball during the 2016 NAB Challenge match between the Geelong Cats and the Collingwood Magpies at Simonds Stadium, Geelong on February 26, 2016. (Photo by Michael Dodge/AFL Media)
Jordan De Goey appears destined for a breakout season. Picture: AFL Media

Matt Crouch's ball-winning ability is well known around Adelaide. He's dominated through the midfield in countless SANFL games already and the 20-year-old showed last year that he has genuine ability at the elite level too. He averaged 21 touches a game in his 17 matches last season but has made serious ground over the summer. He's improved his running and another pre-season of natural development in the gym has him stronger again. That increased running capacity has him better equipped to find uncontested possessions and his improved strength and maturity has seen him raise the bar significantly in the NAB Challenge. He managed 26 disposals and six tackles on Sunday against Fremantle and the week before against West Coast he was again prolific with 24 disposals. With greater opportunity in the Crows' engine room, everything Crouch has done since last season suggests he'll become a key contributor in 2016. – Harry Thring 

Running defender Tom Cutler is coming into his third season and looks ready to win a regular spot in the Lions' backline. Cutler has been dogged by injuries and patchy form over his first two seasons, but gave a glimpse into his enormous potential in the final month of 2015. He averaged 22 disposals over four games and above all showed off his greatest asset – his ability to break lines with his running. The 21-year-old has had a great pre-season, looked sharp in the intraclub and was one of the better players in the NAB Challenge loss against Gold Coast. Cutler has a thumping, but erratic, right foot, but given some confidence at the top level, could be in for a breakthrough season. - Michael Whiting

In his fourth season Nick Graham appears ready to take the next step in his development. The blond midfielder has recovered from a foot problem that caused him to miss the last nine games in 2015 and has been impressive in the Blues' two NAB Challenge matches this year. The 2012 Morrish medallist, 21, struggled to have an impact under former coach Mick Malthouse, being one of the emergencies on three occasions and starting substitute once early last season. But he flourished once given an opportunity in the midfield by interim coach John Barker after several superb performances for the Northern Blues in the VFL. The former Gippsland Under 18s player has an excellent work ethic and generally picks the right option. He is out of contract at the end of this season and will be keen to make his mark early. - Howard Kotton 

Jordan De Goey appears destined for a long and distinguished AFL career, and if his pre-season form is any gauge, he could be on a fast track to elite status. The second-year tyro, who will turn 20 on March 15, was a standout in the Magpies' recent intraclub hit-out and continued to impress in their NAB Challenge win over Geelong, gathering 24 possessions (including 11 contested), five clearances (three of which were from centre bounces), seven inside 50s and six tackles. The Pies boast an ever-deepening midfield but De Goey should enjoy increasing time in the engine room this season. The Pies boast an ever-deepening midfield but De Goey should enjoy increasing time in the engine room this season. Expectations also have risen for beanpole American rookie Mason Cox, who proved a surprise packet against the Cats by slotting two goals, outmarking Harry Taylor and Lachie Henderson in separate contests, and splitting packs with a few other strong marking attempts. Midfielder/forward Tim Broomhead could also enjoy a breakout season if his body remains sound, while opportunist Alex Fasolo, in his sixth season, appears primed after bagging a game-high five goals against Geelong. - Ben Collins

There are big hopes for Zach Merrett to become one of the Bombers' premier midfielders this season and all the signs suggest he has what it takes. About to enter his third season in the AFL, the classy left-footer can find the ball, weigh things up quickly and deliver it as well as anyone on Essendon's list. His first two seasons have been excellent – and he likely would have finished in the top-three of the club's best and fairest last year if not for a foot injury late in the year – but more responsibility will be pushed his way this year. Orazio Fantasia also looks headed for an important season in his young career. The speedy and creative small defender offers crucial run and drive out of the back half and takes the game on. Fantasia, drafted in 2013 alongside Merrett, should get plenty of opportunities this season. – Callum Twomey 

Dockers key forward Matt Taberner has been a project player for three seasons after he was picked up in the 2013 NAB AFL rookie draft but as he heads into his fourth season there are signs he could be set to take the next step. He kicked 14 goals in 15 games last season as he struggled with his consistency. But in the first two NAB Challenge games he has been very impressive following a huge pre-season. His running capacity is his great strength but he has worked very hard on his one-on-one contested marking and competitiveness with assistant coach David Hale over the summer. He took five marks and kicked two goals against Adelaide last Sunday but he could have kicked four or five goals given the opportunities he created. – Alex Malcolm

Nakia Cockatoo played 11 games in 2015, taking him beyond the eligibility criteria for the 2016 NAB Rising Star, but creating the foundation for him to breakout and star this season. Cockatoo's flashes of brilliance will need to become more regular but he has good mentors – including Patrick Dangerfield, who has taken him under his wing – and is beginning to understand what he needs to do to shine consistently at the elite level. Rhys Stanley and Zac Smith only need to stay sound to gain recognition as ruckmen for Geelong, with their athleticism a bonus. Stanley has played 66 games and Smith 65, and less than 10 months separates them so they could have a prosperous time as teammates in the next few seasons. – Peter Ryan 

Torn hamstrings and broken hands have put the brakes on powerhouse midfielder Jesse Lonergan in his first three seasons, but he now has some continuity and looks ready to cash in. The Tasmanian was tried at half-back last year, but settled into a decimated midfield as the season wore on and showed why he was taken in the first round of the 2012 AFL Draft. He has stripped 5kg of weight during the pre-season and was the Suns' best in the first-up NAB Challenge win over the Brisbane Lions. With David Swallow and Jaeger O'Meara to both miss the start of the season, Lonergan is a certainty to get extended minutes in the midfield where he seems primed to captialise. - Michael Whiting 

Former basketballer Rory Lobb could be a wildcard up forward for the Giants this season, with his aerial ability certain to cause some headaches for opposition defenders. At 206cm he's the tallest player on the club's list, and showed in last week's loss to the Western Bulldogs that he's developing quicker than expected. Lobb took five contested grabs against the Dogs to give GWS an imposing target inside 50, and while his finishing still needs attention, he looks capably of being a mobile forward option and back up to ruckman Shane Mumford. The 23-year-old had a tough time stepping in for the injured Mumford in the second half of last year, but the experience and another pre-season in the gym looks to have helped his confidence. - Adam Curley

He's been compared to Dermott Brereton by Sam Mitchell, and if James Sicily can develop into half the player the five-day, five-night premiership star was then the Hawks' recruiters deserve a pay rise. Sicily was snared at a lowly pick 56 in the 2013 draft and looks like becoming the next in a long line of Hawthorn bargains. The blond-haired forward is only 21, but he already plays with swagger. Few might remember, but in the NAB Challenge opener against Collingwood last year he marked on the 50m arc, went back and coolly split the middle with a long bomb supergoal that was a perfect snapshot of things to come. The strong-marking youngster continues to blossom. He had a taste in three senior games last year, bagged eight goals in a VFL match, slotted five in a recent intraclub and is probably the frontrunner to play round one in Jarryd Roughead's absence. - Travis King 

Melbourne desperately missed the polish and poise of Christian Salem throughout much of 2015. The youngster managed just 10 games last season as he was cut down by a series of nagging hamstring injuries. The 20-year-old has now played 22 matches for the Demons and looks well and truly ready, heading into his third season, to become a key member of Melbourne's team. Salem has been in fine pre-season form and was best afield in Melbourne's final intraclub match. He was solid in the club's NAB Challenge opener against Port Adelaide, winning 14 touches on the wing and across half-back. Salem is the best kick in the team and is especially proficient at weighting his passes to his teammates' advantage. But he is also not afraid to get his hands dirty and apply defensive pressure to halt the opposition's progress down the field. - Ben Guthrie

In his fourth summer at Arden Street, Taylor Garner has finally completed his first full pre-season. The forward put 18 months of persistent hamstring and hip problems behind him in the second half of last season to play 11 of the Roos' final 12 games, including all three finals. Off a limited preparation, Garner impressed with his fanatical attack on the ball and defensive pressure and, most memorably, helped turned the elimination final North's way with an influential second quarter. Having finally had an extended chance to work on his fitness this summer, Garner has made noticeable gains in his aerobic endurance that should ensure he runs out games more strongly in 2016. The 186cm forward gives North's attack flexibility with his ability to win the ball in the air and at ground level, while he will be looking to improve significantly on last year's total of six goals. – Nick Bowen

He's injured right now, but the noise coming out of Alberton in regards to the quality of Nathan Krakouer's pre-season has been loud and confident. His class off half-back has been seen before at AFL and we saw glimpses last season. But having improved his fitness again over the summer this silky defender is set to breakout again in 2016. Teammate Sam Gray recently said he's never seen a player who makes the same quality of decisions as Krakouer on the field and given the 27-year-old's increased running power, the footy world should ready itself to see some serious beauty streaming out of the backline. Krakouer has been upgraded from the rookie list already, signaling coach Ken Hinkley's aim to insert him as soon as he's fit. – Harry Thring

Former Greater Western Sydney midfielder Jacob Townsend was targeted by the Tigers to bolster their contested midfield stocks, and he can expect more opportunities at his second club as a result. The 22-year-old has played 28 games in his four seasons – and only one in 2015 – but the Giants were keen to retain him and saw him being part of their midfield. Look for him to play an inside ball-winning and tackling role to support captain Trent Cotchin, who Townsend is keen to support by throwing his body around and breaking tags. Further boosting Townsend's breakout claims are his performance on the track since Christmas. A big ball-winner in the club's final intra-club match, he is in the best shape of his career and featured in the Tigers' full-strength NAB Challenge squad that faced Hawthorn, winning 23 possessions and laying nine tackles. - Nathan Schmook 

Jacob Townsend could be a very valuable recruit for the Tigers. Picture: AFL Media

Seb Ross looks set to establish himself as an inside midfielder at St Kilda. Ross had a fantastic pre-season before the 2015 season but tore his hamstring and required surgery. The big-bodied Saint played only 10 games last year and has never played more than 13 in a season but now is the time for him to stand up. Blake Acres is another who could join St Kilda's engine room. With an even bigger frame than Ross, Acres just needs a good run with injuries to assert himself on the competition – he has struggled with quad and ankle injuries in the past couple of years, as well as a broken hand. Ross was more prolific in the Saints' opening pre-season game against North Melbourne but both players are set to spend a lot of time as on-ballers in 2016. - Dinny Navaratnam

Off-season knee surgery means Zak Jones could make a delayed start to the season, but he will most likely step into the void left by the retired backman Rhyce Shaw and now West Coast midfielder Lewis Jetta. Leg speed is an area that the Swans' list is lacking, so as soon as Jones is ready coach John Longmire will be keen to insert the runner into his side. The 20-year-old struggled to break into the team early in 2015 but played 11 games in the second half of the year, including both of the club's finals, and looked composed in defence. Jones has very good foot skills to go with his pace, making him an ideal replacement for Shaw and Jetta, and with the opportunities opening up in 2016 he should be a permanent member of the side. - Adam Curley

Second-year midfielder Liam Duggan looks set to become an established member of the Eagles' side in 2016 after an impressive debut season. Duggan played 12 matches in 2015 before a knee injury ended his year. He looked comfortable at AFL level last year with his high skills and decision-making a highlight. He has continued to build his body strength this pre-season and an opportunity will present itself early in the year with Chris Masten out for an extended period due to an ankle injury. The Eagles had a rotten day against Adelaide in their first NAB Challenge match and Duggan did not have his best day. He only kicked at 27 per cent efficiency but he did find the football gathering seven contested possessions and four clearances, the most of any Eagle. – Alex Malcolm  

When a foot stress fracture ended Koby Stevens' season in round 15 last season, the rugged midfielder was in career-best form. But the Dogs' NAB Challenge win over GWS showed the 24-year-old has picked up where he left off, gathering 29 possessions (including 12 contested) to be his side's best. Strong overhead and at the coalface, the Bairnsdale product looks set to play big minutes in already imposing Bulldog midfield. A man Stevens is likely to be roving to is Tom Campbell, with the 26-game ruckman impressing over pre-season and continuing that form against the Giants. At 200cm, Campbell has improved his capacity to cover the ground and his ability to take a contested mark up forward should see him sit firmly in Luke Beveridge's plans. And with former Bomber Stewart Crameri sitting out a season-long ban, clever forward Toby McLean should see plenty of senior action. Tough over the ball and deadly near goal, the 20-year-old oozed class in four senior appearances last year. – Ryan Davidson

The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the AFL or its clubs