The Rise And Rise Of The AFL's Modern Key Defender

It’s time we gave the new generation of key defenders some love.

Clearly, the sport is constantly evolving tactically and given their performances are often more easily quantifiable, it’s the forwards that tend to get plenty of attention.

Despite the game’s ever-changing nature, adoration for forwards has been a constant all the way through, whether it was the fight between Brendan Fevola and Lance Franklin for 100 goals in a season or, more recently, the general influx of behemoth targets.

We always discuss and follow the Coleman Medal race with great interest, a specific award given to the offensive end of the ground.

Yet, for the new-age revolution of talls we see in attack, it's been the development and influx of bigger key defenders that has been truly transformative for the game.

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Clearly, the sport only trends upwards in terms of athletic expectations as the years go by.

What used to be a classic, one-on-one battle between forward and defender, leaning heavily in favour of the former, is now an exercise of space creation through the use of an entire team, and a contest of skill, athleticism and intelligence.

We laud the sheer size of key forwards in 2022. The reigning Coleman Medallist stands at 204 centimetres tall. The King brothers stand at 202 centimetres, Adelaide’s Riley Thilthorpe is just one centimetre shorter.

In terms of key forwards under the age of 24, the Bulldogs’ Aaron Naughton is amazingly at the bottom-end of the position height-wise at 195 centimetres.

Historically, the forwards have had the size advantage over defenders. 

When we consider the names of the best key defenders in recent memory, we’d be shocked to consider their heights, particularly in comparison to dominant forwards of the time.

In the last decade, the star key defenders for Premiership teams have included Josh Gibson (189 centimetres), Heath Grundy (192), Alex Rance (194) and at the upper end, Harry Taylor (195) and Brian Lake (195). Before that, we had Matthew Scarlett (192), Justin Leppitsch (191), Simon Prestigiacomo (193), Darren Glass (192).

Dustin Fletcher is perhaps the most iconic name in modern history for Essendon and is notoriously synonymous for his height and reach, with his ability to match up on resting ruckmen and provide adequate aerial coverage to protect his teammates using his 198-centimetre frame to full effect.

Having such height in defence was perhaps a novelty in years gone by, where key backs were more no-nonsense and stocky, relying on being unable to be moved in contests to be successful. Other than those listed above, having defenders who could be elite aerially and defend the lead with closing speed was a rare combination.

Fast-forward to 2022, a period in AFL history where key forwards don’t even need 60 goals to win the Coleman Medal.

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Having massive targets in attack has now been completely offset by the size of new generation key defenders.

Only Hawthorn, Melbourne, Port Adelaide, Richmond, St Kilda and Sydney have no key defenders on their list above 200 centimetres.

Further, only Hawthorn, Melbourne and Sydney’s key defenders in 2022 have been under the height of Dustin Fletcher, a remarkable whole-league transformation.

Height isn’t a reason for success on its own, but being able to cover the likes of McKay and King in size and strength lets the players and coaches show off the purest battle possible on-field - skill and tactical nous.

Of course, some outliers remain. Rory Lobb stands at 207 centimetres with unstoppable reach, while no one is stopping Ben Brown when his arms are at full extension.

But the new age key defender matching the comparative growth and athleticism of the forwards coming through junior ranks helps limit exposure to risks of tactical exploitation when things go to plan.

We know that defence is king in the AFL.

Previously, Melbourne’s success in defensive commitment as the key to their success has been discussed and it has truly become a barometer across the entire league.

The work rate of advanced players is what has driven individual goal scorer tallies down, as teams cover space a lot better and provide significant drop coverage against the opposition’s best forward.

This, combined with the infectious desire to be unpredictable offensively, has evened out specific battles.

One-on-ones dropping significantly from even a decade ago has been a natural progression in the evolution of the sport, yet success in this area is still the lifeblood to winning.

Harris Andrews, Billy Frampton and Alex Pearce are the only players at least 2 metres tall to have defended at least 4 one-on-ones a game, losing 18.2%, 25% and 20% respectively, rating well. 

Frampton himself is also averaging 20 disposals, 6.5 marks and 6.2 rebounds per game.

Through the first 6 games of 2022, Steven May, Josh Walker, Tom McCartin and Sam Taylor have lost 10.5% or less of the contests they’ve been in, all better than the best defender of 2021, Liam Jones (11.8%).

Gold Coast’s numbers are remarkable, with both Sam Collins and Charlie Ballard among the league’s most exposed key defenders, yet both have combined for just 15% of contests lost.

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We are in an era of defensive schemes being the priority of coaches, despite public focus rewarding the most measurable positions on the ground.

While club best-and-fairests and All-Australian team selections have the scope to reward these players, not enough focus is placed on just how much the key defensive position has changed in the AFL, for the better.

A player like Matthew Scarlett was ahead of his time in terms of his reading of the play and body position out of necessity, given he was undersized more often than not.

The Cat legend would fit perfectly in modern-day footy, much like the slightly smaller Tom Stewart with the same footy IQ.

Dour defenders are now the rarity in the AFL and with most clubs having at least one key defender above 200cm, the risk of being caught in a one-on-one against a key forward needn’t be as feared as it once was, with multiple ways to defend these players.

No position has undergone a transformation quite like that of the key defender and it has had a decided impact on the way tactics are laid out.

We expect defenders to now have multiple strings to their bow, which has made tactics far more effective overall.

The AFL is slowly turning into the land of the giants and there are no more easy goals to be kicked.

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Dem Panopoulos

Dem is a lover of sport with a keen eye for analytics. A passion for statistics that defies logic given his MyCricket numbers, you can see and hear him share his thoughts and views on Twitter @dempanopoulos

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