THERE are many questions hovering over Essendon as new coach Ben Rutten takes the reins officially for his first season in charge.
But one – although simple in its nature – looks hardest to answer as the Bombers work through their pre-season: can they kick enough goals in 2021 to match it with the competition's best?
The Bombers, albeit in shorter game time, averaged eight goals a game last year to be the competition's fifth-lowest scoring side.
They cited injuries and an unsettled forwards group as key reasons for the lack of inside-50 impact, and that had some merit with Jake Stringer, Joe Daniher, Orazio Fantasia, Jayden Laverde and David Zaharakis all missing significant chunks of the season through fitness issues.
But Daniher, who has headed to Brisbane, and Fantasia, who finally got to Port Adelaide, won't be returning.
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They have replaced Daniher with Gold Coast's Peter Wright, who averaged just over a goal a game in his 66 appearances for the Suns, while Fantasia's spot will need to be filled from within – watch for Ned Cahill here, having impressed on the track.
Essendon's key forward stocks are not brimming with options. Alongside Wright is James Stewart, who signed a new two-year deal at the end of last year, however Stewart has trained as a defender at stages having played there late last year. If that pre-season positioning holds true, then Harrison Jones will head into his second year at AFL level on track for an opportunity to debut.
He has impressed at training, can run hard and long and is an accurate kick, but still has some development to go. Nik Cox and Josh Eyre, who were selected at last year's NAB AFL Draft, are in the same basket although Cox could feature earlier up the ground in a more versatile role.
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Veteran backman Cale Hooker has impressed with his training so far over summer, returning in lean shape ahead of the final year of his contract with the club.
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Having been omitted late in the season last year, and with Michael Hurley, Jordan Ridley, Patrick Ambrose, Brandon Zerk-Thatcher and Aaron Francis all locked into defence, could it be back to the future for Hooker with a switch forward?
He booted 41 goals in 2017 playing as a permanent marking forward and has pinch-hit in the role in numerous games since to regular effect.
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Essendon's firepower looks set to rely again on Jake Stringer and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti. Stringer has been a good recruit since joining the club, leading its goalkicking his first two seasons and booting 15 last year from 10 games in an injury-interrupted campaign.
Electric small forward McDonald-Tipungwuti was the Bombers' leading goalscorer last year with 19 majors but was down on his influence from previous seasons.
If Essendon is to build under Rutten without an established key forward in its ranks it will also need its best midfielders to carry more of the scoring load.
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Zach Merrett (2.2), Andy McGrath (0.1) and Dylan Shiel (4.6) combined for six goals from a collective 45 games last season. In comparison around the competition, All-Australian midfielders Lachie Neale (14 goals), Christian Petracca (15) and Jack Steele (11) all set a high benchmark for scoring from the engine room.
Expect Essendon to look different in 2021. It will have to, having lost plenty of speed and X-factor in the off-season, with Rutten hoping his defensive and disciplined imprimatur will begin to shine through.
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Rutten wants them to be the "blue-collar" Bombers, a reliable, consistent, no-surprises side. But developing a functioning forward line will also sit among his most important tasks.