IN HIS draft year of 2013, Zach Merrett ranked the quickest decision-maker of his crop after blitzing the fast-twitch psychomotor test. It has been a feature of his stellar career, with his pinpoint selections by foot and choices by hand being a key part of his rise as one of the game's best midfielders. But now, faced with the biggest decision of his career, Merrett is taking his time.
As perhaps the game's highest-profile free agent, Merrett's call will come down to this: does he stay at Essendon, etch his name into the club's history as a long-term star, back in the Bombers' new course and hope success is not far away? Or, after eight years of middling performances, four senior coaches, one terrible saga and no guarantee of premiership contention, does he pursue a fresh start where a flag looks more attainable?
It will not be a money-driven call, with the likes of Collingwood, Port Adelaide, Melbourne and Carlton, among the clubs who have already shown interest in recent months, unlikely to blow Essendon's offer to retain Merrett out of the water. Many think Merrett, for whom the game's changes have worked in his sharp, skillful favour, warrants close to $1 million a season. The Bombers, who paid Dylan Shiel not far from that much over six years at the end of 2018, have an estimated salary cap kitty of up to $2 million to play with after last year's departures.
Although the notion of leaving Essendon last year – and rival enquiries – existed, it was also obvious to all that it was inconceivable the Bombers would trade Merrett as a pre-agent with a year to run on his deal. His closest mate at the club, Joe Daniher, had tried a year before unsuccessfully and then lived through the fallout and with Daniher, Adam Saad and Orazio Fantasia already out the door, the Bombers weren't in any position to entertain offers for their best player.
But Merrett had reason to pause and think. A two-time best and fairest winner already, he had played 142 of a possible 152 games for Essendon since joining the club, but a tilt at being a top-four contender was refigured with its reinvestment in the draft under new coach Ben Rutten. He committed – publicly and internally – to remaining at the Bombers in 2021 but didn't put any timeline on discussions for a new deal, even though Essendon had floated a five-year extension.
As revealed by AFL.com.au in January, a key factor for Merrett was observing and assessing the Bombers' direction before making a call. In December, the club said it hoped for good news on Merrett's deal in the new year, but that was optimistic. Merrett does have a plan for when he will get to concentrating on his future, but that too is open to change.
The 25-year-old is a driven, deep-thinker who sees and picks up on everything in environments he's in. Naturally loyal, he's desperate for Essendon to grow and be better. He has wanted to push change and challenge behavior but is more of an introverted personality, which had led to frustrations – of not everyone being at his elite standards, of himself not lifting others up. His leadership style is different to the more arm-around-the-shoulder from current captain Dyson Heppell.
Feedback on Merrett's approach was clear when he was left out of the Bombers' leadership group for 2020, having previously been a stand-in skipper. The club's vote had him only just outside the five-player group, and the Bombers discussed stretching it out to include him to save the fallout, but thought that would compromise their process. Merrett, after initial disappointment, viewed it as another way to learn.
Now back in the leadership group, Essendon has seen him step up his involvement with younger players in the past 12 months, and he is enjoying seeing his influence rub off on young midfielders Andrew McGrath and Archie Perkins. Recruit Jye Caldwell's long hamstring injury was a disappointment because the pair had also been working closely together. When draft prospect Elijah Hollands (now at Gold Coast) injured his knee at the start of last year, Merrett, who had no links to the teenager, messaged him out of the blue offering his support.
Merrett's quest for improvement has been the force behind his terrific career. It has seen him scour the football world for advice – from Chris Judd and Joel Selwood to Patrick Cripps – and he is a note-taker, getting prepared and setting his goals. Some think at times he listened to too many, but his contract call won't be by committee.
Essendon believes it is building a culture and environment that Merrett will see can progress. Its win-loss record this season won't be the defining factor, but the buy-in of the list to the change Essendon is driving, and his ability to continue to develop his game under Rutten and his team of assistants. He knows the premiership culture comes before the premiership. Rutten said at the start of the season the left-footer was as "committed and engaged" as he has seen him and the coach and his star have established a strong bond.
Given his durability, the 2017 All-Australian is on track to be one of Essendon's most accomplished all-time players. Only five Bombers have played 300 or more games in the club's long history (Dustin Fletcher, Simon Madden, Dick Reynolds, Tim Watson and Garry Foulds), and Merrett could be the sixth. Two more best and fairests would see him join a group of only five in red and black to notch four or more Crichton Medals and he would be leading this year's count after a hot start to the year averaging 31 disposals and four clearances.
Another consideration will be weighing up Essendon's chances of success against his pursuers', with the Magpies and Blues having underwhelming starts to this season and promising signs of the Bombers' rebuild taking shape. If he does decide to move, Essendon will also have rights to match a bid on him, with Merrett to land as a restricted free agent once the AFL releases its free agency bandings.
They could force a trade, as was intimated last year before the Daniher compensation (the Perkins pick) was accepted, or take the free agency compensation, which would likely be a selection around the top-five. That would give the Bombers a haul of five top-10 picks over Rutten's first two years in charge of rebooting the club, with the early part of this year's pool containing some gun midfielders after the Bombers went tall last year. It is clearly not the Bombers' preferred outcome, but Essendon's start to 2021 has shown that top-end talent can quickly turn the trajectory of a side.