THE EVOLUTION of the AFL's Continental Tyres AFL Trade Period was never as clear as it has been the past two weeks where trading for – successfully or not – cap space was one of its biggest drivers.

This is what we are dubbing Phase Six of the annual player movement meat market. 

Phase One came long ago, when deals were about players, in exchange for other players. If nothing else, it made it easier to track and judge the winners of deals. 

Phase Two saw players and draft picks be swapped and sold, with selections able to top up player swapping that wasn't quite on par. Phase Three saw the introduction of free agency, itself a driving force in some trade deals being done and others being left.

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Phase Four included players, picks and points, with the introduction of the sophisticated yet necessary Academy and father-son bidding system. All of a sudden, clubs with priority calls on talented juniors had other things to think about: picks were not just a number, they carried a worth.   

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Then came along Phase Five, the trading of players, picks, points and future picks, which opened up a whole new level of liquidity and opportunities for clubs. Long had clubs rallied for extra chips to have up their sleeves, with most wishing they could trade two years into the future as well. 

Which leads us to now, where we simmer at the end of the Trade Period in Phase Six, having seen salary cap space being traded seamlessly alongside players, picks, points and future picks. Clubs no longer go to market with a list of contracted and out-of-contract players. To use trade terminology, their cap position is also gettable, up for discussion and open to opportunities. 

'Salary dumps', as they have become known, have been used before – the Giants offloaded Tom Scully and Jon Patton's cash to Hawthorn in exchange for late picks in 2018-19, while Collingwood last year traded out Adam Treloar and (albeit just over half) his salary to the Western Bulldogs. But the Treloar instance was the result of a tight salary cap more than a targeted approach to wrench out a good pick in return via a strategy which has never been so pronounced as the past fortnight. 

Adam Treloar faces the media after becoming a Western Bulldog following the 2020 Trade Period. Picture: AFL Photos

Gold Coast got the ball rolling, with the Suns using their pick 19 as bait for clubs that was willing to take on one of their players and ease their tight salary cap. 

North Melbourne came to the party and was willing to make a deal with Darcy Macpherson, who has one year to go on his contract, but the Suns nor Roos could convince him to leave. In the end, Macpherson will smooth out his deal and extend at Gold Coast.

But they kept trying, eventually settling on a deal with Fremantle that saw the Dockers clinch pick 19 and Will Brodie in exchange for future selections, with the Suns no longer paying Brodie and the midfielder taking on a revised deal at the two-year deal at Dockers, where Brodie felt an opportunity break into their midfield.

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The Suns, who weren't going to use the pick this year due to their packed list, found a way to clear coin ahead of their campaign to re-sign Jack Lukosius, Ben King and Izak Rankine beyond next year. 

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Hawthorn had tried to enter the frame for pick 19 by taking on Macpherson and also moving up from pick No.5 to 3 in a deal with the Suns. But the Hawks also had other plans with their salary cap space.

As one of few clubs with room to budge, the Hawks were open to moving Tom Mitchell, Chad Wingard, Jaeger O'Meara and Jack Gunston and paying their salary if it meant they would receive a strong draft choice in return. Every pick has a price and the Hawks were willing to pay. 

Every other club knew the Hawks were open for business, but few peered through the shop window for a look. 

Greater Western Sydney was interested and would have given the Hawks pick 13 for Wingard if the Hawks had paid the majority of the midfielder's money, but Wingard didn't want to move. The same applied for their last-ditch bid for Luke Breust, which again would have involved pick 13 and the Hawks taking on his salary

Luke Breust celebrates a goal against Port Adelaide in round 16, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

Apart from the players not wanting to move, the other problem was that very few clubs were willing to part with first-round picks to grab one of the contracted quartet, making it not worth the Hawks' while without the draft reward, and nor did they have the cap space to take on much – if any – of the outstanding wage if the Hawks didn't pay it in full due to last year's total player payment cuts and redone deals around the competition. 

There were other trade discussions with salary permutations. Rory Lobb's interest in joining Greater Western Sydney, and the Giants' interest in using a future second-round pick to grab him, would have been a perfect salary cap trade had Fremantle wanted to get his money off their books. 

Except two rather big hitches: the Dockers didn't want to lose him and the Giants weren't going to pay him his annual $700,000 wage, so Lobb remained at Fremantle, having left Greater Western Sydney three years ago. Bobby Hill's decision to ask for a trade request to Essendon had salary ramifications but not enough for the Giants to offer enough over their four-year deal to make Lobb happen, nor have the trade capital.

Then there is Peter Ladhams, whose move to Sydney from Port Adelaide was nearly two years in the making, but does open up cap room for the Power as they face a big year of re-signing Zak Butters, Connor Rozee and Xavier Duursma in 2022. 

Done deal: Peter Ladhams is a Swan. Picture: AFL Media

Trade decisions have always been shaped by salary cap positions of respective clubs, but the new era of the Trade Period has made the cap a commodity. 

Savvy clubs have spotted an opening, finding ways to combine picks, players, points and payments for their betterment, with the AFL rules wide open for clubs to be innovative and creative. 

The best operators in the list management space, though, will have another thought on their minds: what is going to be Phase Seven? Through this period, a couple of clubs were already thinking ahead, asking about whether they could top-up contracts of rival clubs' players in exchange for a pick in return.

For example, could North Melbourne, with cap room, alleviate Brisbane's tight cap by paying $400,000 of Lachie Neale's deal in exchange for the Lions' pick 18? Under AFL rules, clubs wouldn't be allowed to do it now, but it's one to keep an eye on for Phase Seven.