IS ANDREW McGrath ready to become Essendon's Trent Cotchin?
The Bombers have big plans for McGrath this season as the No.1 draft pick restarts his fourth AFL season.
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And McGrath is set for a clear role shift that could see the speedy Bomber become the red and black equivalent of Richmond's dual premiership skipper Cotchin.
As revealed in AFL.com.au's recent profile of Essendon coach-in-waiting Ben Rutten, the Bombers last year brought in a key part of the Tigers' game plan with their midfield.
In his first year at Essendon after crossing from Richmond, assistant Rutten was keen to tweak the focus in the midfield to the 'outside'.
Essendon had usually outnumbered at the contest by trying to add one more player than the opposition around the ball, but instead tried to pull a midfielder out of the play and have him hold in the centre square and corridor, a role that Cotchin perfected at Richmond.
It didn't work as well last year, namely because Essendon doesn't have the midfield star-power of Richmond to afford going one less at the contest, but rival opposition analysts had noticed McGrath being used in that Cotchin role through the Marsh Community Series and in round one.
The numbers (although a small sample size) back that up.
According to Champion Data, in 2019 McGrath spent 68 per cent of the season in the midfield, however this was inclusive of 60 per cent game time on the wing.
Essendon occasionally threw him back into defence, knowing he is probably still their most reliable small defender, but enjoyed his run and smart decisions on the wing. He was the Bombers' best player in their elimination final loss to West Coast.
But in round one against Fremantle, the 22-year-old spent 100 per cent of his game time in the midfield, and none as a winger.
Last year McGrath attended 27 centre bounces from 23 games. He attended 12 in round one against the Dockers alone before the COVID-19 break.
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Cotchin's numbers from last year are similar. The Richmond skipper, in finding that ability to drop out of the contest, guard the corridor and be a conduit between the Tigers' attack and defence, averaged 83 per cent of his game time in the midfield and only one per cent on the wing.
He attended 230 centre bounces from 14 games at an average of 16 a game.
And while Cotchin was out injured last year with his hamstring troubles, the Tigers found a readymade replacement in first-year Jack Ross, who slotted straight into the centre square with aplomb.
After winning the NAB AFL Rising Star in his debut season as a rebounding half-back, McGrath's midfield minutes have increased in line with his experience.
He has played 65 of a possible 69 games since joining the club, is considered a future leader at Essendon, and is part of a group that will be expected to lift again this season to help the Bombers jump up the ladder, beginning this Sunday at the SCG against Sydney.
Out of contract at the end of the season, he is also a priority re-signing for the Bombers once the contract freeze is over.