ESSENDON coach Ben Rutten says Zach Merrett is as "engaged and committed" as he has seen him at the club as the star midfielder begins 2021 as one of the competition's most in-demand free agents.
Merrett considered his options at the end of last season with a year to go on his deal at Essendon before confirming he would be at Tullamarine for this year. He will qualify as a restricted free agent at the end of this season.
The club said in December it was hopeful of some positive news soon as it attempted to lock down the gun on-baller, but as AFL.com.au reported in January, Merrett is set to assess the direction of the club before making a decision on his next deal.
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Rutten, who has taken over as senior coach this season, said the 25-year-old's impact at the club had been strong over the pre-season, which has seen him win back his place in the leadership group.
"Zach's a terrific player for us. We all know what he can do on the field, and he finished second in our best and fairest again last season. He's just an ultimate competitor and a professional," Rutten told AFL.com.au.
"Last season he was left out of our leadership group which no doubt would have rocked him a little bit because he is an ambitious, driven guy. But I think we've seen a better version of Zach last year and I think that his experience over the last 12 months will be the best thing for him.
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"He's come back into our leadership group this year and he's having far greater influence over more people, he's got stronger relationships with our playing group and he's still got that drive and determination to be the best he can possibly be. He's a driven guy, he wants to be a premiership player.
"I've loved what I've seen from Zach over the summer and am really looking forward to what he's going to do for us this season."
The Bombers approached the two-time best and fairest winner for a new long-term deal last year, but Rutten said he hadn't discussed the 2017 All-Australian's contract situation with his player.
"Not really. It's so early in the season, we haven't bounced a ball yet for the 2021 season. What I can tell you though is that Zach is [as] committed and engaged as I've ever seen him," he said.
"He wants to be good, he wants us to be good, so I'm sure that will play out through the season but it's pretty early still in the season. I know it's a great talking point but I'm sure that will sort itself out."
The Bombers were one of the busiest clubs in last year's exchange period, with Joe Daniher, Orazio Fantasia and Adam Saad all departing, and Jye Caldwell, Peter Wright and Nick Hind coming through the door, as well as three top-10 draft picks.
Essendon also launched a bold bid to prise Josh Dunkley out of the Western Bulldogs, with the premiership Bulldog asking to be traded with two years to run on his contract. Ultimately the deal did not go through as the Dogs held firm, and Rutten said he was uncertain if the Bombers would again target the strong-bodied midfielder.
"I'm not sure," he said.
"Again, it's really early to tell. Josh I'm sure has got back into the Bulldogs and is fully immersing himself in their program which he should do. For us out of our trade period I think we did really well and we're just keen to see how those guys integrate and complement our playing group."