Tom Papley is one of the AFL's best small forwards. Picture: AFL Photos

THIS is a story in two parts.

It's the story of a player who is rewriting the narrative of what a conventional small forward should look like.

It's also the story of a player who is becoming the most lucrative trade target in the competition, but who is building his value to a point where perhaps no club will be able to prise him away at season's end.

This is the Tom Papley story.


The smallest key forward in the AFL

The number crunchers have been left scratching their heads.

Tom Papley, at just 178cm, has the type of statistical profile more reminiscent of a key forward standing nearer to 200cm. 

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The diminutive Swan does everything that is so often asked and expected of the stereotypical small, crumbing forward. He executes the pressure stuff, he does the tackling, he snaps the exciting goals around the body.

But what makes Papley unique is that he also does what you would more commonly anticipate seeing from players like Jeremy Cameron, Ben Brown and Tom Lynch. And he does it well.


In essence, Papley has become the smallest key forward in the League.

Sydney has stopped experimenting with Papley as a mid-forward in 2020. In fact, it has completely dropped the 'mid'.

But when you look at his output this season, which has seen him kick 15 goals to lead the Coleman Medal count after seven matches, you can see why the sudden role change has become so necessary.

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Papley's centre-bounce attendances have gone from 4.1 per game last season, to just 1.6 per game this year. While he is no longer running through the midfield, he is now becoming so crucial to everything Sydney does in attack.

But, despite the changing presence he holds within the Swans forward line, he is still the Papley that Swans fans have come to know and love.


Champion Data notes that his 15 ground ball gets inside 50 ranks above anyone in the competition. His 11 tackles laid inside 50 also ranks No.4 within the League. He ranks seventh for pressure points (95) and 10th for pressure acts (42) applied in the forward arc.

All four statistical categories are key components of what makes a small forward tick and, unsurprisingly in all four metrics, he outperforms anyone at the Swans.

But what has made Papley's season so unusual, and the reason why he is dumbfounding the stats gurus, is that he is also acting as Sydney's new go-to key forward.

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Champion Data has logged Papley being targeted 36 times inside 50. It's the most targets of any general forward in the competition and clearly the most of any other player at Sydney, with Isaac Heeney's 24 the next in the queue.

Perhaps you could argue that this strategy has been born out of necessity, as the Swans have gone without Lance Franklin, Sam Reid and often Tom McCartin this season due to respective injury issues.


But just as likely is the fact that Papley is actually excelling in this particular role.

He retains the ball from forward 50 targets exactly half of every time he is targeted. It's the second-best retention rate of all top-25 targets, behind only the 193cm Jack Gunston at 52 per cent.

Stemming from that, Papley has taken 15 marks inside 50 so far this year. Again, it's easily the most of any player at Sydney. It's also the second-most of any general forward in the competition by just one, behind only Bayley Fritsch – a player 10cm taller in stature.

He is so clearly the No.1 option in Sydney's forward line. That's highlighted by a three-week stretch between rounds four and six. During that time, Papley kicked 7.4 (46). Every other member of the Swans combined for 7.20 (62).

However, that in itself presents a rather unique problem. One that involves a number of parties, Sydney and Papley included.


The AFL's most attractive trade target

This Saturday afternoon, Carlton and North Melbourne will meet at the Gabba.

However, for recruiters and list managers at both clubs, one eye is likely to be trained on what's occurring down south at the SCG just two-and-a-half hours later, as Papley once again takes to the field for Sydney in its encounter with Hawthorn.

Last year, as Papley sought a return to Victoria, the Blues and the Kangaroos became the two clubs most interested in his services. Thanks to a complicated situation involving the Blues, the Swans, the Bombers and Joe Daniher, a deal was never finalised.

Sydney, not willing to deal picks No.5 and No.9 for Daniher – the latter would have arrived via a trade with Carlton for Papley – ensured that its star goal sneak was going nowhere. It was a decision that frustrated Blues officials to no end.

But while Carlton would have gladly parted with pick No.9 for Papley last season, his remarkable run of form this year – and his unusual, yet effective role change – will mean that his price will undoubtedly surge should it again enquire about his availability later this year.


When contacted by, one list expert not expected to be involved in any potential chase for Papley at season's end said the star Swan could now command a contract worth close to $1 million per year.

As for his value in a trade?

"Two good first-round picks, or one great first-round pick," was the response.

"Look at Dylan Shiel, Tim Kelly, or (the free agency compensation) for Tom Lynch … he's just as valuable as any midfielder or key forward in the competition right now."

That could prove an issue for Carlton, who – after round seven – is currently in possession of pick No.8 at this year's NAB AFL Draft. That's only one pick higher than what the Blues unsuccessfully offered last year for a player who has unquestionably improved his value.

On the other hand, it might provide an advantage for North Melbourne, who currently holds picks No.2 and No.7 courtesy of a deal with Melbourne during last year's Telstra AFL Trade Period.

Of course, North has its sights set on a rebuild under Rhyce Shaw. But exchanging or including one of those selections in a trade for a 24-year-old Papley isn't out of the equation – especially in a year where securing tape on blue-chip draft prospects has been made difficult by COVID-19.


In order to twist Sydney's arm, rival recruiters contacted by believe that the Swans would have to secure a pick in return for Papley that is guaranteed to fall before bids for both of the club's talented Academy prospects in Braeden Campbell and Errol Gulden.

It would allow the club to fast-track its rebuild with two guaranteed early picks, before it is granted access to two more potential first-round prospects in Campbell and Gulden.

Campbell, a speedy and ready-made midfielder, has been touted as a player that could attract a bid in the 10-15 range. Meanwhile the Swans could be forced to match a bid for Gulden, a creative small forward, in the 20-25 range.


But while a trade for Papley definitely makes sense for Carlton – and could make sense for a rebuilding North Melbourne – the discussion is made redundant if it doesn't make sense for Sydney or Papley.

Contracted until 2023, the Swans could realistically once again fend off suitors for Papley by simply not accepting any forthcoming offers – regardless of how appealing they may be.

If Papley were to have a change of heart and wish to stay in New South Wales long-term, that seemingly daunting task would be made all the more simple.

Should that latter scenario occur, it would no doubt be a welcome relief for all Sydney fans currently relishing the prospect of watching a future All Australian strut his stuff on the SCG.

It would, however, be a brutal blow for Carlton, North Melbourne, and no doubt a host of other interested parties eagerly watching and scouting the AFL's smallest – and perhaps maybe its best – key forward.