The NAB AFL Draft is now footy's most strategic event.

It combines the already-challenging task of finding talented players for the next generation with clubs having to outsmart one another through live trading and bidding.  

And it is only getting more tactical, as recruiters and list managers search for a competitive advantage in their 'Grand Final'.

This is the inside story of the first round of this year's draft: the big plays and plans, the trades that did and didn't happen, the targets and priorities and the cascade effect of each club's decisions. 

WHO DID YOU PICK? Every club’s selection for the 2021 NAB AFL Draft
THE TIGERS were on the hunt.

After Richmond selected key defender Josh Gibcus with pick No.9 at last week's NAB AFL Draft, pipping midfielder Ben Hobbs for the spot, the Tigers set out to try and nab both players.

When Fremantle with the next choice also overlooked Hobbs, the Tigers got on the front foot. St Kilda was on the clock for its pick 11 when the Tigers rang with an offer of picks 17 and 28. The Saints weren't interested in sliding back that far.

A similar deal, involving those two selections plus a future second-round pick for pick 12 and a second-round selection, was put to West Coast. But the Eagles were already in discussions with Port Adelaide about a swap of pick 12 and 14, so knocked back the Tigers' bid to jump up the queue.

Richmond had one last shot at pairing up the Greater Western Victoria Rebels duo, offering pick 17 and 28 to Essendon for pick 13, before the Bombers pounced on Hobbs to bolster their midfield.

Essendon draftee Ben Hobbs at Marvel Stadium on November 25, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

Richmond's on-the-go attempts to change its position highlights the evolved nature of the AFL's draft. Formerly, clubs were forced to wait and bite their nails to see if a player they liked would get through to their picks. But since live trading was introduced in the draft in 2018, the best clubs get proactive, seeing the moving pieces unfold and taking matters into their own hands.

There was only one first-round pick-swap deal last Wednesday night, but there were hundreds of scenarios, potential deals, floated trades and knocked-back offers between the clubs within the 20 picks.

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The turning down of deals had begun at pick No.1 weeks ago, when North Melbourne rebuffed interest from Adelaide and Richmond in its first-ever top choice. The Crows had offered pick No.4 and two first-rounders next year in exchange for pick one and a future second-round pick, with the Kangaroos not considering a move (a revised version, with likely a future third coming back instead, was also declined). Richmond also threw its hat in the ring, packaging picks No.7, 15, 26 and Callum Coleman-Jones for No.1, but the Roos didn't budge.

They had their eyes set on Jason Horne-Francis from a long time out and, judging by his determination to ditch his club polo and wear the blue and white-striped guernsey after he had his name called (and then sleep in the No.6 jumper), Horne-Francis had his sights just as firmly set on Arden Street.

Greater Western Sydney's pick No.2 had been viewed, at least outside of the club, as perhaps more attainable. The Giants had plenty of interested buyers: Gold Coast (pick three and a future-second round pick), Adelaide (pick four and a future-second round pick), Hawthorn (pick five and 21), Richmond (pick seven and a future first-round pick) and Essendon (pick 11 and a future first-round pick) all made enquiries.

But the Giants weren't selling. They had locked in on silky midfielder Finn Callaghan (the player every other club was chasing) and would only shuffle back a spot if they were drafting ruckman Mac Andrew, who would have been next in line for the Giants, with the club also looking closely at Josh Rachele and Gibcus for the prized choice.

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The Giants picked the stellar Sandringham Dragons midfielder at No.3 after their bid for Western Bulldogs father-son talent Sam Darcy was matched at No.2. The bid at that point scuppered the Dogs' hopes to re-enter the draft with a pick in the second round, with the Bulldogs, North and Geelong settling on one of the deals they had been working on for weeks to ensure the Dogs had enough points to match the Darcy call.

Gold Coast fired off its own bid on Collingwood father-son Nick Daicos, who toured the Suns' facility mid-year, met coach Stuart Dew, is former schoolmates and teammates of Matt Rowell and Noah Anderson and considered nominating for the open draft pool. But after the Pies quickly matched, the Suns grabbed Andrew, who edged out Gibcus and Rachele for their pick and adds great athleticism and height to their talented squad.

GOING PLACES The making of Collingwood father-son Nick Daicos

Adelaide's nerves were eased when the Suns didn't read out Rachele's name. The Crows had zeroed in on the exciting goalkicker with pick six and if Gold Coast had pulled a curveball and grabbed Rachele, Adelaide would have looked to shuffle back down the order several spots to take Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera, who had pushed into their next in line.

Wanganeen-Milera was also in serious consideration for the Hawks, who came next on the opening night. With the first six picks going to script, Hawthorn's selection at No.7 shaped the next phase of the draft.

Josh Ward was the Hawks' man, with his running power, and inside/outside blend giving him the advantage and his Hawthorn links (the teenager is a lifelong supporter whose great-grandfather Alex Lee played 31 games for the club in the 1930s) making him an immediate fan favourite.

Gibcus was also deep in the discussions for the Hawks, who last year used pick No.6 on backman Denver Grainger-Barras and contemplated pairing the interceptors together.

Richmond draftee Josh Gibcus. Picture: Getty Images

Fremantle had been approached about a slide (trading picks eight and 21 for the Hawks’ picks seven and 23) but held its spot and entered the draft at No.8. The Dockers turned the selection they got from Carlton for Adam Cerra into key forward Jye Amiss. With Richmond's pick sandwiched between the Dockers' two first-round selections, tactical moves came into both clubs' thinking, particularly in the lead-up to the draft.

With Gibcus still on the board, some clubs sussed their options. The Giants offered pick 15 and a future first-round pick to Richmond for pick nine and had also spoken to the Dockers about the same deal for 10 if Gibcus was still available past the Tigers' pick.

St Kilda, too, tried to nudge up the board by trading pick 11 and a future second-round pick for the Dockers' pick 10, which would have ensured first crack at Gibcus and stopped the Giants from mortgaging the pick. But Richmond stuck a pin in those discussions by taking the athletic tall themselves, leaving Fremantle the choice of Hobbs and local midfielder Neil Erasmus.

The Dockers sided with Erasmus ahead of Hobbs and Matthew Johnson, before St Kilda swooped on Wanganeen-Milera, having flown to Adelaide the day before the draft to speak with the silky wingman in person. The Glenelg product beat out Calder Cannons half-back Josh Goater, with Josh Sinn, Johnson and Hobbs all in the mix.

St Kilda's draftee Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera at training on December 1. Picture: AFL Photos

This is where things got interesting. With recruiting and list management teams back at Marvel Stadium for the draft, AirPods were firmly implanted in ears across the corporate boxes as phone calls buzzed from room to room.

It is recruiting's newest art: no longer it is it purely about ranking and rating players, it is about knowing where your rivals rank and rate players. What we've dubbed 'DI' (Draft Intelligence) is more heavily protected for the fear of being jumped, and more highly valued for the opportunity to do the jumping.

THE VERDICT Our say on your club’s 2021 draft haul

While the Tigers looked at ways to bring forward their second first-round pick, and Wanganeen-Milera off the board, the Eagles finalised a deal with the Power that had been discussed a day before the draft. It saw the Eagles collect a future second-round pick to swap pick 12 with 14 and leapfrog Essendon to grab Sinn, who had been linked with the Bombers.

Earlier in draft week, Sinn had a training session with Power young star Zak Butters, and Port was keen to make sure it could add his blistering speed to its half-back line. When Port Adelaide made its move up the board by four spots in the Trade Period in the deal that sent ruckman Peter Ladhams to Sydney, Sinn was a part of the group the Power had targeted.

Essendon, at pick 13, chose Hobbs next, ending his drop down the order after several close calls went against him with Fremantle and Richmond's picks. If not Hobbs, the Bombers had Blake Howes in their sights, having met him days before the draft.

The deal with Port appealed to West Coast to allow them to slip back a couple of spots and still grab athletic wingman Campbell Chesser, who was also being looked at by Brisbane and Melbourne later in the first round, as well as give them some more currency to potentially get another top-20 pick. If not Chesser, half-back Tom Brown and Goater were also in the Eagles' mix.

Both Port Adelaide and West Coast had considered offering their future first-round pick to the Giants for pick 15, dependent on player availability, with the Giants canvassing several options. They could hold and take a player, try to trade up the order, trade down the order or simply trade out the pick altogether.

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While the Giants were on the clock, Sydney rang about moving up from pick 18, while Melbourne had offered pick 19 and 39 for the selection and Brisbane was interested with 20 and a future second-round pick. It's likely all had the same idea in mind – snaring defender Darcy Wilmot – and even though the Lions had the next pick (where Wilmot was selected), by purchasing the Giants' selection it would have meant no other club could leapfrog them.

Hawthorn, too, had offered pick 23 and a future second-round pick for 15 but the Giants didn't budge, instead opting to take a needs-based approach to the selection.

Having chosen against a tall with their earlier choice, the Giants identified Leek Aleer as their key defender of choice. Instead of risking moving down the order and missing Aleer, with murmurs of other interested clubs, the Giants held their spot. The sliding doors of the draft meant that had the Giants gone tall at No.3, their next pick would have been a choice of small forward pair Jesse Motlop and Sam Butler.

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Brisbane jumped on Wilmot once its turn came, targeting and finding an attacking half-back with pace and competitiveness, before the Tigers chose Brown to add to their talented defensive group and as a partner to Gibcus in an exciting young backline. Eye-catching forward Kai Lohmann was also in the Tigers' mix.

Brown had also been linked to the Swans, who looked at Lohmann but chose Angus Sheldrick, the hard-nosed midfielder from Western Australia who had interest from Geelong early in the second round.

With Johnson, Goater and Howes among a handful of talents still on the board, clubs just outside the first round started to check if they could buy into the top-20 and make a late dash at a slider. Hawthorn and Geelong were keen to package up picks but couldn't find a taker. Melbourne held its pick 19 and drafted Jacob van Rooyen, with Howes, as well as ruckman Toby Conway, also a contender for that spot. That the Dees got Howes the next night at pick 39 was a bonus for the premiers.

Melbourne draftee Blake Howes. Picture: Twitter / @melbournefc

The Tigers remained active, seeing if they could package picks in the 20s to nab Brisbane's final pick of the first round, but the Lions stuck with it and drafted Lohmann, who had also been a chance for North Melbourne's early second-round choice.

After the first 20 selections, the draft stopped overnight but the pick-swap talks did not.

Fremantle was at the centre of conversations on day two, with the Dockers holding onto the valuable pick 21 to open proceedings. Hawthorn discussed packaging pick 23 and a future second-round pick to grab Fremantle's pick – the Hawks' future first-round pick was never offered as part of a deal, at all – but the Dockers stayed where they were and added Johnson to their WA pairing at the top of the order.

The Dockers' stance to keep the pick was emblematic of the 2021 draft. Despite all of the talks and permutations – in the Trade Period, in the pick-swaps window, on draft night one and night two – only two deals happened inside the top-30, proving the early part of the 2021 draft to be a potential pick-swaps paradise more than a fulfilled one.