Jake MichaelsESPN Senior Writer10 Minute Read
Twenty-four rounds. 207 games. The 2023 AFL home-and-away season is done and dusted, but before we embark on finals, it’s time to reflect on the season that was and look at the standout performers.
Here are the 10 best players (ranked), and just like the All-Australian team, there are a number of extremely tough omissions. Shoutout, most notably, to Jordan Dawson, Errol Gulden, Jack Sinclair, Connor Rozee and Caleb Serong, who all narrowly missed the cut.
10. Taylor Walker (Adelaide)
You’d have been laughed out of the room for suggesting Walker would boot 76 goals in 2023 and be in contention for the Coleman Medal until literally the final game of the season. But that’s exactly what the star Crow managed as he continued his stunning career resurgence.
Walker’s highest goal tally, combined with the fourth-most score involvements and fifth-most marks among forwards earned him his first All-Australian blazer (crazy, huh?). But the part of his game which really separates him from many of his peers is his kicking. This year, Walker had the second best kick rating in the game according to Champion Data. He also ranked No. 1 for rating points generated from his ball use.
Best performance: Take your pick of the Eagles games, really. In Round 13 he saluted with his first bag of 10 goals in his career, while in Round 24 he kicked nine from a record 19 shots at goal. Both times he had 21 disposals and both times he had 10 contested possessions.
9. Lachie Neale (Brisbane)
Another year, another 23 games of high class production from the 2020 Brownlow Medal winner. And who knows, in a few weeks time he may become a two-time winner of the league’s best and fairest award, joining the absolute elite of the modern era.
Neale continued to do his best work at the coalface, winning more clearances than any other player in the league and ranking second for scores generated from those clearances. Eight times he had at least 10 clearances and 15 times he had at least eight of them. Neale also finished the year ranked third for contested possessions, fifth for ground ball gets and 11th for total disposals. With those type of numbers, it was a surprise to see him miss out on All-Australian selection.
Best performance: Neale kicked just three goals this year but two of them came against the Tigers in Round 16, a game where he also amassed 34 disposals, 15 contested possessions and 10 clearances.
8. Tom Liberatore (Western Bulldogs)
Liberatore’s omission from this year’s All-Australian team is not only laughable but indefensible. This season, he was arguably the No. 1 inside midfielder in the league, ranking first for ground ball gets, second for clearances, second for contested possessions, second for pressure acts and third for total rating points, all while averaging more disposals and uncontested possession than at any other point in his totally underrated and appreciated career.
You only need to look at how the Bulldogs struggled late in the year when he missed a game and a half with concussion to understand just how valuable he is. By no means is picking an All-Australian team a simple task, but the selectors made an absolute howler here and Liberatore has every right to feel aggrieved. There was no chance he was missing out on this list.
Best performance: After back-to-back losses to the Magpies and Swans, Liberatore put the Dogs on his back in Round 19 against the Bombers. He had a season-high 36 disposals and 22 contested possessions, as well as 12 clearances and eight score involvements.
7. James Sicily (Hawthorn)
I was mocked for ranking Sicily as the 12th best player in the competition heading into the season, but it’s fair to say that take has now been totally justified. The Hawks skipper is the best defender in the game. Period. His versatility — ability to play small, tall as well as float in the backline — combined with his high IQ and pin-point foot skills also makes him one of the most valuable players in the competition.
Sicily finished the year ranking first for marks and second for intercept possessions per game and won more ball than any other key defender in the league. He also ranked No. 1 for total score involvements among defenders, and that’s even with missing four games!
Best performance: I still believe Sicily’s game against the Saints in Round 11 was the best anyone has played all year. His stat line at fulltime was just wild: 43 disposals, 24 kicks, 16 marks, 11 score involvements, 22 intercept possessions, eight intercept marks and 658 metres gained.
6. Zak Butters (Port Adelaide)
It was a breakout season and more from Butters, one which has already landed him both the AFLCA champion player of the year and the AFLPA’s most courageous award. The Power gun established himself as one of the real must-watch players in the league, combining breathtaking evasiveness with truly elite kicking skills. His desire to hit every contest at full tilt has also become legendary.
Butters averaged 27 disposals, 10 contested possessions, five clearances and five inside 50s this campaign, but the number which really tells the story is the fact he finished the year ranked second in Champion Data’s player ratings. Butters also had the second-most rating points from field kicking this year, behind only Zach Merrett. He will head into the Brownlow Medal count on the third line of betting.
Best performance: You’ll struggle to see a better wet weather game ever played than what Butters produced against the Demons in Round 10. The 22-year-old had a career-high 41 disposals (at 78% efficiency), 10 clearances, 12 score involvements, eight intercept possessions, eight inside 50s and kicked two goals in the four-point win.
5. Toby Greene (GWS)
Last month I argued Greene simply had to be the first player selected in this year’s All-Australian team, so it’s fair to say I was delighted to see the dynamic Giant named skipper when the side was officially released.
Greene really has ascended to a point where he pretty much has no peer in the position of small to mid-sized forward. He booted a ridiculous 60 goals this year — in 19 of his 21 games he finished with multiple goals — and averaged 18 disposals per contest. For context, only five players in the history of the sport have ever achieved that feat! Greene also ended the year with the second-most score involvements per game and continues to rank ‘elite’ at Champion Data in just about everything.
Best performance: So many to choose from but it’s hard to go past Round 7 against the Swans. Greene kicked four goals and had two other direct goal assists from his 22 disposals as the Giants pipped Sydney by a point.
4. Christian Petracca (Melbourne)
He was on track to hold his place at the summit of this list right throughout the season, but his move into the Demons forward line halted his production, albeit only slightly. Petracca is the bookmakers’ favourite to poll Brownlow Medal votes in more games than any other player, which tells you everything you need to know about his consistency and ability to have an impact every time he steps onto the field.
Petracca led the league in score involvements and was second in direct goal assists. He also finished the year averaging a tick under 28 disposals and six clearances per game. Again, those numbers don’t quite paint the full picture, given he spent the bulk of the final third of the year playing in the forward 50m. My favourite stat about Petracca’s year is that he had four 20-disposal and three-goal games – the equal-most of the year, alongside Greene and Walker.
Best performance: One of those 20-disposal, three-goal games came in Round 7 against the Kangaroos. Petracca finished the night with a season-high 35 disposals, as well as 16 contested possessions, nine inside 50s and 14 score involvements.
3. Charlie Curnow (Carlton)
Some will argue the back-to-back Coleman Medal winner is now the undisputed best player in the sport, and while I’m not quite there yet, the evidence in favour is certainly mounting. Who knows, a massive finals campaign could get him over the line.
Curnow kicked 78 goals this year, 14 more than in 2022, and was the only player in the league to kick a major in all 23 games. He kicked at least three goals 13 times and at least five on six occasions. Curnow also finished the home and away season with the most contested marks, second-most score involvements, and the fourth-best overall kick rating in the league. The scariest part? He’s still just 26 years of age!
Best performance: It’s hard to kick 10 goals in a game and it not be your best of the season. Curnow reached double figures against the Eagles in Round 19, a game where he also had a season-high 20 disposals, five contested marks and 15 score involvements.
2. Nick Daicos (Collingwood)
He produced perhaps the greatest sophomore year in AFL history, and even missing the final three games of the home and away season, remains a massive chance to claim the Brownlow Medal – what would be a truly unprecedented achievement in the modern era.
Daicos wasted no time in joining the competition’s true elite, hitting the ground running from Round 1 against reigning premiers Geelong. In fact, through the first six weeks of the season, Daicos averaged a shade under 37 disposals and a goal per game. Extraordinary stuff! He finished the year averaging the second-most disposals in the competition, as well as the sixth-most metres gained among midfielders. Daicos’ 7.4 rating points per game from his ball use ranked him third in the league in the area, behind only Walker and Curnow.
Best performance: I’m still not sure Daicos has topped his epic Anzac Day effort. The young Pie starred on the biggest stage, finishing the game with 40 disposals, nine score involvements, 600 metres gained and two crucial goals – a performance good enough to take home the Anzac medal.
1. Marcus Bontempelli (Western Bulldogs)
The longer the season went the better ‘the Bont’ seemed to get. His side may have failed to make it into September, but the Bulldogs skipper certainly played his part and more than staked his claim as the best player in football. Bontempelli was crowned the AFLPA’s most valuable player and best captain last month, and will head into the Brownlow Medal count as the joint favourite, alongside Daicos.
Bontempelli finished the season with more contested possessions than anyone else in the league. He ranked third for clearances, fourth for tackles and third for metres gained, among midfielders. This season was also his best in terms of raw disposals, averaging 27.65 per contest. Champion Data’s rating points have him as the best player in the game, and it’s hard to disagree.
Best performance: Bontempelli’s game against the Giants in Round 8 was simply outrageous. He tallied 32 disposals, a career-high 26 contested possessions, a career-high 14 clearances, laid seven tackles and kicked a goal. Epic.