Having fallen short in their pursuit of off-contract key defenders Ben McKay and Esava Ratugolea, Hawthorn's list plans for the upcoming player movement period are set to either shift or soften.

McKay has declared Essendon as his preferred club of choice as he prepares to exercise his rights as a free agent, knocking back interest from the Hawks, Swans, and Power, with the latter set to secure the services of Ratugolea.

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Wantaway Roo McKay and Cats swingman Ratugolea were strongly in the sights of Hawthorn as the off-season sunrise lifted over Waverley following the club's seven-win season.

But while both McKay and Ratugolea opted for overtures from elsewhere, senior coach Sam Mitchell and list manager Mark McKenzie won't necessarily be settling for the next name potentially available to them on the key backman market.

That pool of players will shape one of the busier markets come the exchange window as McKay and Ratugolea prepare to headline a host of tall defenders set to change colours in October, with the man McKay will likely be replacing at Essendon, Brandon Zerk-Thatcher, set to join Ratugolea at Alberton Oval.

So, who else might be on offer for the Hawks to consider? And is the available talent enough to satisfy Mitchell and McKenzie as Hawthorn continues to work through their rebuild?

The potential trade options among key defenders aren't held to just off-contract players, with Port Adelaide's Tom Clurey and his former teammate-come-Saint Dougal Howard both floated as potential departures at their respective clubs this year.

Clurey finds himself on the outer at the Power given the incoming and aforementioned Ratugolea and Zerk-Thatcher, with the 29-year-old having already struggled to break into Ken Hinkley's plans before his season was cut short through injury.

While Howard isn't viewed as a player likely on the move, he firms as one of the more efficient key defensive options that have had their future questioned over the course of 2023.

Dougal Howard during the 2022 AFL Round 1 match between St Kilda and Collingwood (Photo by Cameron Grimes / Zero Digital Media)

28 years of age at the start of next season doesn't see Howard fit into the Hawks' list demographic, but the St Kilda stopper might not come at the high price Ratugolea potentially will on the trade market.

Like McKay, a free agent won't cost the Hawks any trading capital, with medium-sized defender Tom Doedee joining the Kangaroo as one of the few restricted free agents unsigned for 2024.

At 187cm, Doedee lacks the height of those that have been on Hawthorn's radar, but a move from West Lakes could allow the likes of James Sicily and Jack Scrimshaw some more assistance on the third-tall threats.

Similar could be said of unsigned Saint Nick Coffield, who has four centimetres on Doedee and might be one to thrive in a new environment away from St Kilda. Injuries have prevented Coffield from a clean run at AFL level, with his price tag unlikely to be what it once was, or what his potential suggests.

Carlton's Caleb Marchbank and Sydney's Will Gould both stop the tape at a similar height and can match up against players that stand taller, but might not be immediate influencers on Hawthorn's list.

A free agent without a restricted tag is Docker Joel Hamling, who has often been placed behind top-line backmen Alex Pearce, Brennan Cox and Hayden Young at Fremantle, and could be a cheaper depth option for the Hawks to ponder.

Both injury, form, and preference have limited Hamling to six appearances at senior level over the past three years, with the premiership Bulldog likely needing to land at a fourth AFL club to extend his 91-game career.

But the Hawks won't be in a rush to bolster their backline with experienced talent just because McKay and Ratugolea turned down their advances, with the cashed-up club likely to make a greater off-season splash in 12 months' time.

Another year of development, draft focus and list shaping should have Hawthorn in the finals mix for 2025, while their September chances can't be ruled out for next year either.

But the off-contract crop of key backmen includes Josh Battle, Jack Henry, Nick Haynes, Nathan Murphy and Jake Kolodjashnij, who are all eligible for free agency outside of Murphy.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 05: Jack Henry of the Cats avoids a tackle by Blake Hardwick of the Hawks during the round 3 AFL match between the Geelong Cats and the Hawthorn Hawks at Melbourne Cricket Ground on April 05, 2021 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

The aforementioned Howard will also come off-contract in 2024. As will Demon Adam Tomlinson, who is another name that has been taken off the market this year after being viewed as a required player at Melbourne.


The Hawks will have their own defensive assets to tie up next year though, with Scrimshaw, Changkuoth Jiath, Josh Weddle, Blake Hardwick, James Blanck and Denver Grainger-Barras all unsigned.

Had they hoped to get creative with their current list and potentially swing a tall forward into defence, Mitchell's options are also stark after Jacob Koschitzke's trade request to Richmond.

An experiment to move Emerson Jeka into the back third is yet to pay off, while Grainger-Barras has undergone the inverse and shown some promise as a forward target at VFL level.

On top of their hopes of adding to their backline, Hawthorn will need to find further support for Mitch Lewis in attack and may look to do so at the draft.

Gippsland's Zane Duursma is a fitting piece that could fall into Mitchell's list rebuild puzzle with their opening selection (currently Pick 3), while Western Australia's Dan Curtin could fill a role on any line of the field and would be of great interest to the Hawks if his name isn't called by either the Eagles or Roos atop November's draft board.

Adding to their current first-round selection at the expense of their 2024 opening pick may be of interest to the Hawks too, with next year's crop of talent noted to be midfield-heavy and potentially not an area that needs adding to at Waverley.

Hawthorn could look to slot back into the draft order after Pick 3 through creative trading, but will be keeping father-son prospect Will McCabe in mind, who firms as a late first-round selection as one of this year's leading intercept defenders.

Torrens University SA U18 National Championships players Will McCabe, Jack Delean and Tyler Welsh. (Picture – AFL Photos)

McCabe will be more of a long-term option in Mitchell's plans, with senior figures in Sicily and Scrimshaw at least bridging the gap for his development as the Hawks steer themselves toward deep September showings.