MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 03: Jake Stringer of the Bombers celebrates a goal with Darcy Parish of the Bombers during the 2021 AFL Round 03 match between the Essendon Bombers and the St Kilda Saints at Marvel Stadium on April 03, 2021 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

I’ve found myself asking this question a number of times in the past couple of days resulting in a mixture of bewilderment and disbelief. Are we sure Jake Stringer isn’t a top 20 AFL player in the 2021 AFL season? It’s almost ridiculous to even write it but it may be more plausible than first thought. Let’s discuss...

Excluding his 2015 All Australian year, Jake Stringer (#9) is having a career year. He’s averaging 16 disposals, 4 tackles, 4 clearances, 5 inside 50’s, 6.5 score involvements and 2 goals a game (13th in the AFL for goals per game). No other player is averaging 15+ disposals, 5 inside 50’s and +2 goals a game or is even remotely close outside of Toby Greene. Since round 14 , Stringer has been the second highest rated player at Essendon. And it’s easy to see why. In that span, he has averaged 23.6 disposals, 7.4 inside 50’s and 2.6 goals. These are incredible offensive numbers. He has pivoted from his roaming forward role to taking on more responsibility in the midfield due to the absence of Shiel, McGrath and Caldwell. And he’s excelled in his new role. He’s averaging 4+ more disposals this year than his career average. He has a clear presence in the middle and is so dynamic with his mix of speed and size that he is difficult to match up on.

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Stringer is a burst player in every sense of the word. Not just in relation to his speed but his actual play style.

Just in the last couple of weeks, Stringer amasses the first 4 clearances of the game against North and then kicks 4 goals in 25 minutes later on. Against Geelong, he kicks the first two goals of the game. You get the picture.

His finishing skill on the run makes him one of the best in the league. He doesn’t need much time to finish around goals. Stringer barely grabs this ball before it’s on his foot yet he still flushes it with ease.

The unique combination of speed, strength and skill means Stringer’s a threat anywhere on the ground. It’s easy to see how he averages 4.2 goal attempts a game (rated elite in the AFL) when you see him do things like this. How many other players can kick this goal? 4-5? If that.

It’s no secret that the key reason for Stringer’s ascension has been his improved fitness. That hasn’t necessarily coincided with an improved work rate or defensive effort around the ball but more so his aerobic capacity contest to contest. He can now play significant midfield minutes without blowing up later in games. Perfect example against North Melbourne. Stringer kicks those four goals in the space of 25 minutes even though he played heavy midfield minutes throughout the game. The old Stringer would have ran out of gas at 3 quarter time.

He’s just as much of a mismatch as a forward than a midfielder. Like most of the best AFL players (and certainly top midfielders), Stringer can impact the game both at ground level and in the air (although his marking numbers in all facets have decreased from his career averages). He’s too strong for a small defender but far too explosive and quick at ground level for a tall. There’s only so many Nick Vlaustin type defenders running around…

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But yes, you’d think he’s the best player in the AFL based on this description. Well, there’s other things about Stringer’s game.

He has clear deficiencies. He wouldn’t be so polarising as a player if he didn’t. Stringer has been viewed as quite lazy by the media. Whilst I won’t go that far – he’s undoubtedly a one effort player when you watch the film. He’s great at getting on the move around stoppages but if his first effort doesn’t result in a disposal or a knock on that leads to an eventual disposal, that’s usually it. He picks and chooses when to provide defensive pressure. Very rarely do you see multiple defensive efforts from Stringer. Around stoppages he can hurt Essendon because he ball hunts and fails to provide coverage out the back of stoppages. He looks to be a ball hunter in areas that expose stoppage exits (he usually comes from the front of the stoppage but can get sucked in to the contest whilst an opposition on-ball wingmen holds their space).

Here, Stringer’s ball watching allows Oliver to cut around the back and through the front of the stoppage.

Stringer can be a down hill skier. When he realises that Essendon are going to win a clearance outside of his general vicinity, he bolts forward. He has a knack for finding the open space ahead of the ball. Again, he creates match up problems when he does this as he usually gets picked up by a small defender on the way through. This is how he gets four shots at goal a game. But you don’t see this type of running the other way. Sometimes, he goes too early and leaves his direct match up free on the counter attack. It’s not the in close stuff that he is poor at – he averages four tackles a game. It’s more so his defensive spread once the ball leaves a contest. The positive sign is that he’s improving and Stringer shows glimpses of unselfishness.

It’s just not consistent.

But that’s the thing with Stringer. When he’s in this kind of form, you take the very good for the somewhat bad. Essendon have defensively capable midfielders in Merrett, Parish and Langford (when healthy) to minimise some of the cracks left by Stringer’s defensive deficiencies. On the other side of the ball, Essendon get one of the most damaging goal kicking midfielders in the AFL who punishes teams that give him space. To Stringer’s credit, neither North or Essendon players stood up and kicked the important goals when required except for Stringer. Stringer took on the responsibility and kicked all of his goals. No one can deny that he is a great finisher.

Can a player that has clear flaws be a top 20 player in 2021? Absolutely. Does that mean he is one?

Probably not – although he’s close. Without doing my list extensively (Would people like this done with detailed analysis? Let us know), he probably sits around the late 20’s / early 30’s mark. The volatility in his performances game to game (although he’s been more consistent this year) and the fact that he’s missed 5 games doesn’t help his case. He’s also never finished within the top 10 of Essendon’s B&F although voting systems within internal B&F’s can be quite arbitrary and that result should change this year.

However, the season isn’t over. And Stringer’s last five games have been as impactful as any player in the AFL. If Stringer isn’t kicking his two goals a game, he’s getting 20+ disposals and generating meaningful offensive drive with his high inside 50 numbers. If he struggles to find the football in the midfield (as on the weekend), he pushes forward and puts himself in dangerous positions to kick goals. When fit and firing, Jake’s a headache for opposition teams.

What he’s worth is another question all together. He isn’t revered as an A grade footballer given his inconsistencies year to year. The consistency has been there this year but it’s directly correlated to his fitness. If that fitness goes, all of a sudden the lack of defensive work rate becomes a major liability without the goal kicking rewards. That makes him impossible to value because he’s such an unknown commodity with incredibly volatile upside AND downside risk. Regardless, Stringer’s a match winner evidenced on the weekend. Match winners are few and far between and are well compensated in the AFL.

With all of this, Stringer is legitimate and is an important piece to Essendon’s puzzle. Maybe not now, but he may very well be a top 20 AFL player by the end of the year. Let that sink in.

Let us know if you agree.

This article was originally published at Footy Talking Points.