THE QUESTIONS surrounding Essendon ahead of its 2020 campaign are significant.
How will the coaching succession plan work? Will they be able to assemble a midfield that bats deep enough to match it with the best? How will an injury-affected off-season impact? Can they finally find the consistency required to be a top team?
But a crucial one lays in football’s most basic principle: can they kick enough goals to truly be a top-four threat?
Essendon’s scoring slumped to an average of 77 points a game last year, compared to 88 in 2018 and 95 in 2017, when they made the finals and spearhead Joe Daniher was an All-Australian key forward.
Scoring competition-wide fell last season, but Essendon has gone too far backwards as it has tried to become a more defensive unit.
Daniher is also some way off that player right now. The match-winner has had a slow rehabilitation program from his groin surgery last year, and is yet to start running again.
The club is being extra cautious with his recovery, and if it knows when Daniher will be available for senior selection, it certainly isn’t muttering it publicly.
So the Bombers need to work out ways to compete with the top teams without Daniher – if not just for early this season but perhaps for the long-term if he again seeks a move at the end of the year after last October’s failed trade request.
Daniher wasn’t the only forward to miss chunks of last season through injury, with Orazio Fantasia, Devon Smith, Shaun McKernan and James Stewart also facing lengthy absences that made the starting forward six a rotating mix of faces every week.
Plenty was left to Jake Stringer, who has been an excellent recruit and won the club’s goalkicking both of his years at Essendon, and small forward Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, an extremely durable and robust goalkicker.
The good news is that Fantasia and Smith are back up and going and completing all drills at training. Fantasia looks sharp, quick, agile and hungry, and Smith’s fierce tackling and pacy movements are back.
But the key forward stocks are still an issue, with Mitch Brown delisted at the end of last season and McKernan inconsistent. Stewart, too, is still on modified training as he manages his own groin issues.
The options aren’t endless for coach John Worsfold and his 2021 successor Ben Rutten. But could the emergence of a young defender force their hand?
People at Essendon have been quietly excited about the development of key back Brandon Zerk-Thatcher over the past 18 months, and he was in the senior mix well before his eventual debut in round 22 against Fremantle last year.
That night, the now 21-year-old was a late replacement for veteran defender Cale Hooker.
But if Zerk-Thatcher’s marking prowess, agility and game sense continues to take shape and forces him into the Bombers’ backline, could it make for a more permanent role change for Hooker?
The Bombers’ backline can’t fit all of Hooker, Michael Hurley, Zerk-Thatcher and Patrick Ambrose, let alone Aaron Francis who will be hoping 2020 is his breakout campaign across half-back.
Hooker has shown more than any of those that he is capable of making an impact in attack. Last year it was in cameo form, proving a matchwinner with late goals against Greater Western Sydney and Gold Coast.
But in 2017 he kicked 41 goals from 20 games and was the perfect foil for Daniher, who booted 65 that season. Three years on, at 31 and after an injury-hit pre-season, he may not be capable of that same output, but if Zerk-Thatcher is barging down the door it will cause a restructure in the back half.
How the Bombers configure their talls – particularly with a lack of depth in that area in attack – will be fascinating, and crucial to their 2020 hopes.