L-R: Andrew McGrath, Dyson Heppell, Brad Scott, Zach Merrett and Dylan Shiel during Essendon's official team photo day at the Hangar on February 14, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

ESSENDON will look to a group of experienced players to expand and grow their leadership potential as the club sets itself to name a new captain for the first time since 2017. 

Dyson Heppell's decision to stand down after six seasons as skipper will see the Bombers appoint a new leader, with gun midfielder Zach Merrett the favourite to be next in line.

Merrett was Heppell's vice-captain last year and captained the Bombers for the first time late in 2016 as a 20-year-old, while Andrew McGrath was the deputy vice-captain in 2022. 

Zach Merrett looks on during an Essendon training session at The Hangar on February 2, 2023. Picture: Getty Images/AFL Photos

The Bombers' external review last year pointed to a strengthened leadership program being a priority and coach Brad Scott said that while there were candidates for the captaincy vacancy, he was also keen to grow the group beneath that.

"We're fortunate to have a handful of guys who are capable [to be captain]. But we also need to have a really good understanding that we need better depth in our leadership. We need to bring some guys through," Scott told AFL.com.au

"Arguably as important as our official leaders in 2023 will be the program we put underneath with those players in the mid-20s age demographic so they can be the next leaders of the club. Part of the reason I wanted to keep a really open mind is I think once the club makes decisions, they're hard to undo. So we have to spend 12 months really developing our leaders and appealing to their strengths. 

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"We do have a lot of players who lead really strongly in certain areas and other players who do it quite differently and I think that shared leadership model is really important for us. We want Zach Merrett and Andy McGrath to lead where they're good, and we want other players to lead in other areas. 

"Zach and Andy are highly driven and motivated players and we have other players who are more laidback but they're really important in terms of the group dynamic. Dyson certainly fits into that mould as well."

Essendon will announce its new captain next week before its clash with Gold Coast on Thursday, with 27-year-old Merrett, a three-time best and fairest winner and two-time All-Australian, viewed as the leading contender. Scott said he had been delighted by Merrett's application and approach since he joined the club as its new coach last September. 

"In the five months I've been here, he has not put a foot wrong, he has led by example on the track and again, I always knew he was a good player, but I've been pleasantly surprised on the upside," Scott said. 

Heppell captained the Bombers for 107 games, having taken over from Jobe Watson in Watson's final season in the AFL. The 30-year-old Heppell, who had interest from Gold Coast during last year's off-season before re-signing for one season, has trained on the wing throughout the pre-season.


Scott, who caught up with Bombers players individually upon taking on the top job, said he had followed Heppell's career from afar with admiration.

"He's one of those players who really rallies players together and our club has been through some difficult times over the last little period and he's been a mainstay in keeping that together," he said.

Dyson Heppell and Brad Scott share a laugh during Essendon's official team photo day at The Hangar on February 14, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

"I was really keen for him to continue but ultimately he's made the decision to step down from the captaincy which I have to respect. He's going to focus on his footy and part of the reason he wants to step down is he feels there are emerging leaders coming through and he wants to support them while he's still playing."

The Bombers face the Suns in a practice match on Thursday afternoon at Austworld Centre Oval for their first competitive hitout under Scott.