As the AFL's 18 clubs continue with their preparations for the 2024 season, it feels as though league-wide parity hasn't been as prevalent in some time.
A legitimate argument could be made that 16 of the league's 18 outfits have genuine claims to finals football contention this year.
As is the case every year, there are clubs expected to challenge following successive strong campaigns, as well as youthful contenders ready to emerge from below.
However, whilst competitiveness could be at an irregular high in '24, it doesn't mean there still won't be four clubs consigned to the bottom of the ladder at the end of August.
Here, we examined which clubs are in strongest contention to slump to a bottom-four finish in perhaps the tightest upcoming AFL season in recent memory.
A two-horse 'race' for the spaghetti stirrer
Few would argue that the West Coast Eagles and North Melbourne shape as the weakest pair of clubs this upcoming season if assessing purely on last year's efforts.
The Eagles' 2023 campaign was especially repugnant. With a host of senior players still making up the brunt of Adam Simpson's best side, West Coast's on-field product was unexpectedly abhorrent, even after a lowly two-win campaign the year previous.
Despite earning an end-of-year reprieve as head coach, Simpson's seat was relentlessly hot in '23 as the Eagles stacked the loss column. West Coast's veterans - with plentiful premiership experience in tow - were unsuccessful in aiding the club's cause, as the likes of Elliot Yeo, Jeremy McGovern and Tom Barrass struggled to stay available for large portions as a result of injury.
Ultimately, in addition to 20 on-field losses, the Eagles parted ways with a trio of senior players; Luke Shuey, Shannon Hurn and Nic Naitanui, who rubber-stamped their retirements after a forgettable season.
West Coast managed more 100-point losses (five) than wins (three) for the year, registered a malnourished percentage of 53.0, and was consigned to the last spot on the ladder and the rights to the draft's first overall selection.
While Harley Reid arguably represents a worthwhile prize, the Eagles won't be bearing the true fruits of his selection this season. Further, last October's additions of Matthew Flynn and Tyler Brockman - while positive acquisitions - are unlikely to pay immediate dividends.
Instead, the Eagles are anticipated to spend another season trying to avoid 18th.
The Kangaroos, meanwhile, are right there with West Coast in the wooden spoon conversation and would've possessed the unwanted mantle last season if not for an improbable victory over Gold Coast in Round 24.
A two-from-two start to the year had Roos supporters screaming from the rooftops, though Alastair Clarkson's unforeseen departure quickly derailed the club's newfound momentum.
After an unlikely win over the Dockers in Perth in Round 2, North Melbourne didn't manage another win until its final hitout of the season against the Suns - four premiership points that cost the club Reid's tantalising services.
North Melbourne boasts more young talent than most clubs in the competition, though its winning prospects this year don't appear much improved from last year's, even after adding Zac Fisher and Dylan Stephens during the trade window.
The Dockers: Their 'anchor' might be literal, not figurative
As numerous bottom-ten 2023 finishers plot ascensions this year, there figures to be a few surprise bottom-four finishers, and Fremantle could well end up one of them.
After doubt was raised about Justin Longmuir's future in Cockburn this pre-season, the Dockers will be desperate to right the wrongs of yesteryear.
Fremantle's 10-13 record last season resulted in a 14th-place finish, a significant regression from its inspiring semi-final berth in 2022.
The Dockers weren't major buyers during last year's player acquisition period, which mightn't have been a problem if not for the fact they offloaded valuable livewires Lachie Schultz and Liam Henry and acquired little in the way of offsetting those losses.
Delisted Gold Coast wingman Jeremy Sharp returned to his home state of Western Australia, representing Fremantle's main addition.
Further, the Dockers didn't welcome a draftee into their fold until Victorian midfielder Cooper Simpson had his name called at No. 35. Granted, though, a sizeable chunk of the club's draft capital went to Melbourne as part of 2022's Luke Jackson agreement.
All in all, considering Fremantle already ranked fourth-worst in expected score per game (78.5 points) in 2023, there weren't enough discernible additions this off-season to inspire confidence that a Dockers resurgence is on the menu in '24.
Rather, the opposite might be the likelier outcome.
Hawthorn and Gold Coast: A lesser, but still relevant, part of the conversation
The rebuilding Hawks notched multiple impressive wins against formidable opponents last season, suggesting they're creeping closer to September contention. Four of Hawthorn's seven wins came against a quartet of top-eight finishers; Collingwood, Brisbane, St Kilda, and the Western Bulldogs.
The club's engine room - headed by burgeoning ball-winners Jai Newcombe, James Worpel, Conor Nash, Will Day, and Josh Ward - is likely to hold the side in terrific stead going forward, as revitalising coach Sam Mitchell preaches aggressive ball movement.
A bottom-three finisher last year, Hawthorn's short-term finals hopes are still tentative, though a potential leap into contention in '24 shouldn't come entirely as a surprise.
Speaking of revitalisation, there's a renewed sense of Gold Coast-flavoured hope following Damien Hardwick's integration into the fray.
The three-time Richmond premiership mentor has already positively impacted his youthful squadron, with defender Wil Powell the latest in a line of excitable Suns to voice their commendations of 'Dimma'.
"Every time he stands in front of us and speaks it's like, 'wow, this bloke knows what he's talking about'," Powell told SEN this week.
"He's awesome. It's so good with a new coach and he's got the runs on the board. Everyone is so eager to learn from him."
The Suns capped last year's bottom four after they crashed and burned during a campaign that saw six-year coach Stuart Dew unceremoniously dismissed.
Dew's 30-per-cent win rate wasn't cutting it at Carrara, so the Suns installed the heralded Hardwick to assume the reins and help guide the struggler to a maiden premiership.
Albeit, there is no immediacy with success in the AFL. Hardwick had to stomach numerous heart-wrenching campaigns at Punt Road before ultimately tasting flag glory three times over.
Will the Suns' Hardwick-led turnaround be quicker than that of Richmond's eventual dynasty? Perhaps. But, on the other hand, if the 51-year-old's game-plan indoctrination goes awry in his first year at the helm, Gold Coast could land right back where it started the year - near-bottom of the pile.
Richmond? It's really a new era, now
Hardwick's Carrara initiation provides a good segue to discuss the Tigers, who stamped the beginning of their new era by officially introducing Adem Yze as the club's senior coach late last year.
Life after Hardwick hasn't been kind to Richmond thus far, with chief executive Brendon Gale labelling his club "unrecognisable" after a season that culminated in just ten wins and a September spent watching on from the couch.
Further, triple Norm Smith medallist Dustin Martin will see his contract expire this year, with the aforementioned Hardwick possibly plotting a reunion on the Sunshine Coast.
While a regeneration in terms of coaching and player personnel was arguably necessary, Richmond's short-term winning prospects are tenuous, particularly after such expansive change.
One life too many: Have the Cats finally been forced off the cliff?
Missing last year's finals series might point most towards 'yes', but if we've learned anything about these steely, experienced Cats, it's to not write them off.
Geelong's list committee should be expecting further leaps from the likes of young midfielders Tanner Bruhn, Max Holmes, Jhye Clark and Mitch Knevitt, as well as talented ruckman Toby Conway, especially if another finals push is on the 2024 menu.
Conversely, though, Geelong's over-30 list is long and representative of an imminent changing of the guard.
Tom Hawkins, Zach Tuohy, Patrick Dangerfield, Rhys Stanley, Mark Blicavs, Gary Rohan, Mitch Duncan, Cam Guthrie, Tom Stewart, Jeremy Cameron and Jed Bews. That's a classy list of players, and a lot of talent potentially rotating out the doors at Kardinia Park in the coming seasons.
The best (worst) of the rest
Essendon, Adelaide and the Western Bulldogs were the other three sides to be excluded from finals calculations last year, though it's difficult to envision any of that trio playing poorly enough in 2024 to finish amongst the worst quartet.
By all reports, the Bombers seem rejuvenated from their pre-season player-funded trip to the United States and ready to embark on their second season under Brad Scott. A four-game winning streak through the middle of last year fuelled Essendon's finals hopes, though seven losses from its final ten games swiftly scrapped those plans. However, an exciting brand of play under Scott's command has the Bombers poised for a positive year.
The Crows, meanwhile, were incredibly unlucky to miss out on finals action last year and shape as the likeliest 'big riser' this season, particularly with a continually improving young list headlined by skipper Jordan Dawson and exciting x-factors Izak Rankine and Josh Rachele.
Finally, while the Bulldogs capitulated late last year to sit out September, their list is far too talented to drop to 15th or below. The Bulldogs have seasoned star power in all three lines, but they also have tantalising youngsters primed to break out; Jamarra Ugle-Hagan, Sam Darcy and Ryley Sanders, just to name a few. There remains doubt over coach Luke Beveridge's future at Whitten Oval beyond this season, but if the Dogs' talented core plays to its capabilities, there's no reason they're not September-bound and barking in '24.