THE QUESTION for the Western Bulldogs has not just been how much the club should pay its skipper, superstar, talisman and free agent Marcus Bontempelli for his next deal. It is also how much the club needs to leave for the rest of the Bulldogs, who have one of the most talent-rich lists in the competition.
Bontempelli, who will classify as a restricted free agent, remains out of contract a month into what is shaping as one of his best AFL seasons. This is of no concern at the Dogs, nor does anyone in football believe Bontempelli would entertain a change of scenery. Before the season started, the 25-year-old made it clear to the club he would recommit and wanted to stay, but that he was going to focus on getting the Dogs to start the season well and on his form before contemplating his contract.
Last year had been challenging as a first-time captain for Bontempelli: there was the COVID-19 break, leading a young group while spending four months on the road in Queensland, overcoming a sloppy start for the side and the off-field incident of his vice-captain Lachie Hunter, which saw his teammate give up the mantle. Getting off to a strong beginning was a priority and has been achieved, with the Dogs sitting atop the ladder unbeaten after four rounds and the 2016 premiership midfielder in red-hot form.
While there has been no hurry to lock in his next deal in the opening weeks, there is a confidence that when talks ramp up a resolution will be reached quickly for Bontempelli. But while the club will have one eye on its top Dog, who rivals believe would command up to $1.2-3 million per season elsewhere, the club also needs to keep its pack together.
Having prioritised and re-signed emerging defender Bailey Williams to a new two-year deal, the Dogs are in talks with free agent Tom Liberatore over an extension. Mitch Wallis was dropped for round three but the vice-captain is also out of contract this year, as well as first-round picks Ed Richards and Cody Weightman. The club has started discussions on Laitham Vandermeer's new deal, with the speedy forward's contract ending this year.
Patrick Lipinski, omitted in recent weeks, grew up a Bulldogs fanatic but is out of contract and will have other clubs circling if he continues to be on the fringes, like Toby McLean last year before his knee injury.
Then there is next year's group. Young gun Bailey Smith, who has yet to miss a game since joining the Bulldogs and is on the ascent to superstardom, will be ready for an increased deal, as will All-Australian pair Jack Macrae and Caleb Daniel, who will both qualify as free agents for the first time. Ruckman Tim English will also fall out of contract at the end of next year, as the club positions itself to open talks with its core players for extensions before they start 2022.
Josh Dunkley, last year adamant on a move to Essendon in the Trade Period, is contracted to the end of 2022. Norm Smith medallist Jason Johannisen and defender Alex Keath are in the same basket, as will be Jamarra Ugle-Hagan, whose first negotiated deal will come with a No.1 pick tax – usually now anywhere between $400-500,000 for the top draft choice in their third and fourth seasons.
The Dogs have come prepared. Under list manager Sam Power, the club pre-paid some of its salary cap, a mechanism allowed for clubs to get ahead.
After a drop-off after their 2016 flag, the Dogs maximised the time when they were a developing team and were able to bank some money under the AFL rule which enables clubs to maximise their play payments and leave room to recruit and retain. Despite the squad of priority re-signings, and their players taking an increased 5.5 per cent across-the-board pay cut at the start of the season, the Dogs are understood to still have some headway to be active again this off-season.
Power has gained a strong reputation among player agents for his pragmatic, practical approach to contracting. The Dogs haven't underpaid their players nor overpaid new ones.
In-form forward Josh Bruce is on a longer-term deal but a lower rate than he was at St Kilda, while off-season addition Adam Treloar, who the Dogs are paying $600,000 per season until 2025, is clearly their highest-priced acquisition. But the Dogs, on the back of two elimination final defeats in 2019-20, saw Treloar as a marquee chip who could move the needle from finals fill-ins to a premiership shot (so far, so good) and did not have to give up much trade capital to get the deal done.
The market-rate offers have another benefit, demonstrating to the Dogs' established players that the club isn't going to overspend on a recruit who comes into the club earning more than the home-grown Bulldogs. They have shown they put stock in their own. And because of a strong recruiting history, the Dogs also currently have the best credentialed state league side, with first-round picks and premiership players pushing for selection.
Treloar will play a part in the Dogs' hopes to ward off interest in Dunkley, with rivals believing the Bombers will come for the hardened midfielder for the second-straight year after last season failing to get a deal done after Dunkley trade request. Treloar and Dunkley have swiftly become the Bulldogs' new 'bromance' since the former Magpie and Giants star joined the club.
Success beckons at Whitten Oval if the group can remain intact. Bontempelli, who has started his free agency year arguably as well as any free agent of the past alongside Tigers champion Dustin Martin in 2017, is but one (albeit significant) part of the Dogs' plans.