FREMANTLE is the riser of 2022 so far and its list build has come from the draft and trade backblocks.
There is symbolism in the fact the Dockers, who moved to a 6-1 start with their win over the Cats on Saturday, have improved this season despite the loss of star midfielder Adam Cerra to Carlton in the off-season.
It is that Cerra's departure, due to wanting to return to family in Victoria, saw the Dockers' list management and recruiting team shrewdly turn their attention to grabbing a basement price replacement as well.
Fremantle wanted to keep Cerra but his absence has also seen some of the club's lesser lights – the late picks, rookies and second chancers – step into the spotlight.
Fremantle's list and recruiting boss David Walls has overseen the build alongside football manager Peter Bell, with coach Justin Longmuir, now in his third season in the job, comfortable in blooding younger players from the outset.
Here's the three key features of how the Dockers are now seeing the rewards of their build.
Mining late in the draft
Lists are made not only by nailing early choices but using later selections to pick the eyes out of the draft. It is something that Freo has done by stealth over the past five years, with some super recruiting deep in drafts that is now coming through together.
Luke Ryan's star was already well known before 2022, but the Therabody AFL All Australian backman will forever be a great draft selection after being taken at pick No.66 in 2016.
The following year, the Dockers chose young ruckman Lloyd Meek at pick No.69, with Meek only debuting last year but playing four games this season as Sean Darcy's partner and injury replacement.
A few picks later, at No.73, the Dockers selected Sam Switkowski from the Box Hill Hawks' VFL side as a 21-year-old. The mature-age pick-up had been overlooked by clubs for two years before the Dockers took a punt on him, with Switkowski repaying the faith. The small forward is now a score assist and forward-half pressure machine.
In 2018, the Dockers grabbed small forward Lachie Schultz via Williamstown's VFL side at pick 57 and then in 2019 added Michael Frederick with pick 61. Both have been instrumental in Fremantle's quicker ball movement, with Schultz last year knocking back an offer to join Hawthorn in the trade period.
In the 2020 draft, the Dockers also benefitted from the Next Generation Academy program, bringing in Brandon Walker at pick 50 after matching a bid on the speedster, who has played the past five games and brings extra pace to their mix.
Over time the Dockers have also scoured the rookie draft with success, with Bailey Banfield (2017) and Josh Treacy (2020) among the senior players to have lifted from there.
Bang for buck on discarded first-rounders
Fremantle is also finding gold where others haven't. In Blake Acres, James Aish, Will Brodie and Jordan Clark, the Dockers have recruited four first-round draft picks that, in all cases apart from Clark, were moved on from their previous clubs.
Acres didn't want to leave St Kilda in 2019 but was the late addition to the Bradley Hill deal and made his way back west having been the No.19 pick in the 2013 NAB AFL Draft. His hard running, size and marking ability are now coming to the fore in what has been a career-best start to the season.
James Aish left Brisbane for Collingwood and then the Pies for the Dockers at the end of 2019 but has found his most consistency at his third AFL club and is used in a range of roles by Longmuir, while Brodie, who was pick No.9 at the 2016 NAB AFL Draft, couldn't displace the Gold Coast's crew of inside midfielders but has a new lease on his career at Fremantle.
Clark, as expected, has added plenty of speed to Freo's half-back line and is already a key part of their ball movement, having not been able to hold onto a spot in Geelong's side and requesting a trade at the end of last year.
Blending top picks with mid rangers
Central to the new-look Dockers' form is, of course, stellar consistency from some of their A-grade youngsters.
Andrew Brayshaw is one of the players of the season in his fifth AFL campaign since being the No.2 pick in 2017, while Caleb Serong, two years his junior, has not missed a beat since his debut season in 2020 when he was the NAB AFL Rising Star winner.
Hayden Young and Heath Chapman, who were first-round selections in 2019-20, have also shown impressive signs this season despite recent interruptions, with the Dockers' swathe of early picks on the rise in unison.
There is more talent to come, too. Liam Henry, the third of the Dockers' three top-10 picks in 2019, has only played one game this season and of their trio of top-21 picks from last year's draft – Neil Erasmus, Jye Amiss and Matt Johnson – only Erasmus has been seen at AFL level so far.
The blending of the top-end talents with the mid-draft finds, such as Darcy (No.38) and Brennan Cox (No.41) in the 2016 draft, is seeing an even spread of ability as Fremantle's surge back into top-four contention continues.