The injury crisis engulfing the embattled Kangaroos comes at a time their playing list is being heavily scrutinised. The mass injuries owe at least in part to bad luck and this year's unusual circumstances – but questionable management (at times) hasn't helped. Within that, a string of injury-prone footballers are among those North must consider parting ways with. Should the Roos trade Ben Brown, and what do they need to complement their developing youth, led by Tarryn Thomas? Marc McGowan takes a deep dive into all of these issues.

IT'S IMPOSSIBLE to ignore that North Melbourne has lost more games to injury than any club this year.

Fifty of those 72 matches are from players considered to be in the 17th-placed Kangaroos' best side, another AFL-leading tally.

Fremantle ranks second in both categories, with 63 and 41, respectively.

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They are sobering numbers for a team facing a sixth straight defeat this weekend – and for a coach, Rhyce Shaw, who said he would rate the season "a failure" if North didn't qualify for finals.

ROUNDS 8-12 Check out the full fixture

A campaign that started 2-0 and with all sorts of hope has run off the rails, including one of the club's biggest stars, Ben Brown, being horribly out of sorts and the subject of trade speculation.

Brown was close to re-signing before the AFL-enforced contract freeze kicked in at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak. He's kicked seven goals in seven games and is averaging eight disposals.

Shaw's honeymoon period is over, and has been for a while. Some of the same people who fawned over Shaw last year are already questioning him and the process that anointed him.

THE LADDER Where is your team sitting?

In fairness, the injury toll is brutal and this season is unique because of the global pandemic. However, it was Shaw who gave a hobbled Ben Cunnington the tick to play against the Western Bulldogs three weeks ago after watching him warm up.

Shaw's since admitted his mistake. Cunnington's ailing back and related problems have prevented him from playing since, and it's unclear when he will return.

That decision is why the Kangaroos were slaughtered in the wake of skipper Jack Ziebell reinjuring his hamstring in the opening quarter of his first game back after a fortnight off.

Shaw said it was "bad luck" rather than mismanagement, while Ziebell labelled the suggestion he returned too early as "rubbish".

Part of the problem is mass injuries aren't new at Arden Street. North Melbourne lost the fourth-most games to injury in both 2019 and 2017, while in 2018, it was 11th.

Same old names off the park

Exacerbating North's injury woes are the usual suspects struggling to get their bodies right.

Ben Jacobs, Taylor Garner, Ed Vickers-Willis and Majak Daw have endured injury-marred careers, while Dom Tyson's recruitment has so far been a debacle – not helped by a nagging calf problem.

THE FULL INJURY LIST Who is racing the clock?

Mason Wood was once attached to that group for his frailty but now he's fit, he's battling to find form. He's goalless in three appearances this season, after being discussed with rival clubs last year.

It's a similar story for defender Sam Durdin, who's unsighted at AFL level in 2020.

Ben McKay finally played his first game of the season in Saturday night's shocker against Richmond, and did a good job minding star Tiger Tom Lynch.

The 2012 and 2014 national drafts make for excruciating reading for North Melbourne people. That crop should be, at their age profile, leading the charge right now.

Instead, Garner, Jacobs, Wood, Durdin and Vickers-Willis face the realistic prospect of clearing their lockers at season's end. The rest of those draftees are already gone.

Only Tyson and McKay, from the above, are contracted beyond this year. In fact, more than half of the Kangaroos' 45-man list is out of contract.

Middling players such as Paul Ahern, Marley Williams, Tom Murphy, Kayne Turner and leadership group member Jamie Macmillan also face a 10-game acid test to prove they deserve another contract.

Paul Ahern celebrates a goal against the Swans in round three. Picture: AFL Photos

The three new men responsible for the club's future list direction had their hands somewhat tied last year, with contracts already in place, but that is no longer the case.

They are football boss Brady Rawlings (started in December), list manager Glenn Luff (November, in the week before last year's drafts) and head of player personnel Scott Clayton (February).

Shaw will have a big say as well, along with national recruiting manager Mark Finnigan, who replaced Bryce Lewis in December 2016. They deserve time to correct the past missteps.

KANGAS OUT OF CONTRACT IN 2020

Paul Ahern, Jed Anderson, Ben Brown, Joel Crocker, Majak Daw (unrestricted free agent), Sam Durdin, Taylor Garner (unrestricted free agent), Kyron Hayden (unrestricted free agent), Lachie Hosie, Ben Jacobs (unrestricted free agent), Jamie Macmillan (unrestricted free agent), Matt McGuinness, Tom Murphy, Jasper Pittard, Bailey Scott, Curtis Taylor, Kayne Turner, Ed Vickers-Willis, Josh Walker (unrestricted free agent), Will Walker, Marley Williams, Mason Wood (unrestricted free agent), Tristan Xerri.

To trade or not to trade Brown?

Alarm bells ring when you're headed for a bottom-four finish and most of your best players are aged 29 or older.

Shaun Higgins (32), Todd Goldstein (32), Robbie Tarrant (31), Ziebell (29), Cunnington (29) and Jasper Pittard (29) fit that bill.

Shaun Atley, Jared Polec and Brown turn 28 between September and November. Right there are nine of the top 10 in North Melbourne's best and fairest last season.

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The other was 25-year-old Trent Dumont, one of the few success stories in that mid-20s age bracket. Luke McDonald, who is having a career-best season, and Jed Anderson can also claim this status.

The Kangaroos fought tooth and nail to re-sign Higgins and Goldstein last year despite Geelong being among their keenest suitors. Letting one of them go may have been wiser.

Now it's Brown's turn to be thrown up as a possible trade chip.

He's the only player in the AFL to kick 60-plus goals in each of the past three seasons, but his current form slump is daily football conversation.

Larkey's foot-related absence is having a major impact on Brown, whose partners in attack this year have rotated between Tom Campbell, Xerri, Josh Walker and Wood.

Check out Brown's 2019 splits with and without the 22-year-old, who helps drag away defenders and open his prolific teammate's leading routes. 

STATISTICS

R1-5, 2019 (W/O LARKEY)

R6-23, 2019 (WITH LARKEY)

2020 NORMALISED*

AFL Player Ratings

7.0

11.4

5.3

Goals

2.4

3.1

1.3

Score involvements

5.0

6.8

4.9

I50 target retention

22.6%

34.3%

25%

Marks

3.2

5.4

4.6

Marks inside 50

2.0

3.1

2.1

* This extrapolates numbers from shorter quarters to normal duration

At the same time, trading Brown and relying on Larkey as the No.1 option, with a patchwork partner or in the hope Charlie Comben can roar onto the scene next year, is fraught with danger.

What is a forward like Brown really worth, and would any realistic trade offer greater pros than the potential cons?

It's not every year the equivalent of the King brothers, for example, is available in the top 10. Brown is still only 27, a proven commodity and could rebound in the second half of this season.

Adelaide, the only club below North Melbourne on the ladder, has a longer-term vision and quite rightly moved on many of its older crew.

The Kangaroos may not need to be quite as ruthless, because of what they already have coming through.

Either way, what comes next will help determine whether North can finally emerge from the mediocrity mire.

Solving the injury riddle, shedding the dead weight and plugging the gaping hole in its age demographic will be a good start. Just don't be too hasty with Brown.

The 'Roo-build' has already started

Whatever lies ahead won't be a slash-and-burn job.

There will be significant casualties, in a football sense, but the kids chosen in recent years look pretty good.

Tarryn Thomas and Jy Simpkin are the best of them but Curtis Taylor, Cam Zurhaar, Luke Davies-Uniacke, Nick Larkey, Jack Mahony, Kyron Hayden, Bailey Scott, Tristan Xerri and Will Walker provide a decent platform.

Curtis Taylor celebrates a goal alongside teammates Ben Brown and Jack Mahony. Picture: AFL Photos

Scott, Zurhaar, Thomas and Larkey were NAB AFL Rising Star nominees last year, and Taylor picked up one this season.

Comben looked promising in the pre-season but he, too, is recovering from injury, as is another highly rated 2019 draftee in Flynn Perez.

It's too soon to tell if trade acquisition and 2017 No.11 pick Aiden Bonar will 'make it'.

The Roos have two draft selections in this year's first round, having secured Melbourne's top choice in a swap they should come out well from, even if the Demons win the flag.

Clayton is on record with AFL.com.au saying defenders and a small forward are among North Melbourne's immediate list priorities.

An injection of speed beyond the likes of Atley, and better kickers – more Taylor types (his kick rating going inside 50 is a team-leading +29.4 per cent) – must also be on the agenda.

Targeted recruiting of players from other clubs in the 23-to-26 age bracket who fill specific needs, something Hawthorn has done well in the past, should dominate their time as well.

And they don't necessarily have to be 'big fish'. But the pressure is on the Kangaroos to get this right.