After a number of standout performances across the past fortnight, a plethora of pundits have come to the same consensus – Dustin Martin has unequivocally solidified his status as the game’s best player.

Against finals contenders Port Adelaide, Brisbane, and the Western Bulldogs, Dusty averaged 22.3 touches of the ball with 3.6 clearances a game. He was also busy in front of the sticks, kicking a collective four goals, including this peach against the Bulldogs in Round 9.

Martin’s recent run of form has left even the most brazen of contrarians searching for a name worthy of knocking the tiger king from his throne.

Although, once we descend from Dusty’s rare air, the landscape becomes slightly more ambiguous.

Who is the league’s second best player?

Due to personal preferences, any subjective answers to this query are likely to be hounded for bias or blasphemy.

However, here are a handful of names that logically and statistically can lay claim to the step below Dusty on the contemporary footballing podium.

Hopefully, this list aides in ending some arguments or better yet, adds fuel to any rippling flames.

THE ‘USUAL SUSPECTS’

With three Brownlow Medals between this quartet, none of these blue chip stars need any introduction to anyone who has ever watched the game.

With over 250 games, seven All-Australian selections, a league MVP and a Brownlow, It would take an almighty fool to suggest that Patrick Dangerfield is not a star of the game. Across his thirteen seasons, Danger averages better than 24 disposals plus a goal a game, and with time on his side, Dangerfield has already accumulated the sixth most Brownlow votes in league history.

Prior to the completion the 2019 season, only 11 players have ever been crowned the league’s best and fairest player on multiple occasions. Upon claiming his second Brownlow last season, Nat Fyfe joined names such as Harvey, Goodes, Judd and Ablett as their twelfth member. Despite being hamstrung so far 2020, the purple portion of Perth’s messiah is without doubt one of the most esteemed on-ballers still plying their trade.

Since making his debut in 2006, Collingwood skipper Scott Pendlebury has been as consistent as Greenwich Mean Time. Although without a Brownlow on his mantel, Pendles does own six All- Australian blazers, AFL life membership and both a Norm Smith and premiership medal. Often likened to a Rolls Royce, the 300-game Magpie has averaged above 26 disposals a game across his career at a 61%-win rate.

THE ACCUMULATORS

Contemporarily, statistics are often seen as a signifier of success. This pair are perennially treated for leather poisoning.

Despite not boasting a resume as lengthy as the aforementioned trio, Lachie Neale’s recent form has skyrocketed him toward their bracket. Widely predicted to end the season with a swag of personal accolades, Neale’s 2020 performances have glittered like gold.

Amassing just under 29 disposals and a goal a game, Neale sits atop the AFL Coaches Association player of the year award by a comfortable margin. If his short Brownlow odds are an accurate indicator, it isn’t just the coach’s eyes Neale has caught, but those of the umpires as well.

After recent hauls of 29, 37 and 40, it would be fair to suggest that Jack Macrae is familiar with the feel of a Sherrin. The premiership Pup has been averaging a seismic 29.9 disposals per game this season, even with the impediment of shortened quarters. An All-Australian last year, it would take the earth to be swallowed whole for the Oakleigh Chargers product to miss out on back to back selections.

THE ‘DISCOUNT DUSTYS’

Dividing his time between centre square and forward fifty, Martin has become damaging both at stoppages and in front of the sticks. Here are the men that have been cast in a similar mould.

A hero to some, but a villain to plenty more. You either love Toby Greene or you hate him.  His footballing ability however is anything but contentious. The 2016 All- Australian has averaged over 22 touches plus a snag a game over the course of his 150-game career and is going at 15 and two this season. When he isn’t sidelined by either injury or indiscretions both on and off field, Greene is without doubt one of the purest players in the game.

As another of the league’s bad boys, but also one of its most prodigious young talents, Jordan De Goey also has the ability to polarize public opinion. Since being selected by Collingwood in the first round of the 2014 draft, De Goey is another medium forward that has begun to spend more time at stoppages.

Despite finding less of the football than Martin, the similarly inked Magpie has a higher goal per game average than his Richmond counterpart and is still yet to register 100 games.

Although experiencing an interrupted 2020 season, De Goey reminded crowds of his match winning capabilities with five goals against Geelong in Round 7.

Rounding out this trifecta of hybrid weapons is Port Adelaide’s perennial barometer, Robbie Gray.

Gray’s last month of football has been vital in keeping the Power atop the premiership table in this sprint of a season. The 32-year-old is no doubt a staple in the same game multis of a majority of punters due to finding the ball on average 15 times per game with a reliable 1.4 goals per game mean. None of his majors this season were more important that his after the siren sealer to break bluebagger’s hearts in Round 7.

In a career that has been derailed by soft tissue injuries and illness, Gray has time and again proved that he is not only capable of regaining form, but igniting the Power.

THE NEXT GENERATION

Form is temporary, but class is permanent. These budding stars have the latter by the bucketload already.

With two All-Australian selections, three club best and fairests and premiership medal to his name (as well as being rigor mortis stiff not to be selected as the 2014 Rising Star), Marcus Bontempelli’s CV is already stacked. The former Northern Knight was selected with the Western Bulldog’s fourth pick at the conclusion of 2013 and after six glittering seasons at the kennel, the Bont was handed the captaincy reigns.

In this the year of condensed playing time, Bontempelli’s disposal averages have dipped from last season, down from 25 to 19, as have his clearances numbers (5.8 to 4.4). However, after finding the pill on 30 occasions in his side’s loss to Brisbane, fans of the bulldog breed will be hopeful that the upward trend continues.

At 6 foot 5 inches in the old and tipping the scales at over 90 kilograms, a footballing layman could be forgiven for mistaking Patrick Cripps for a key forward. The newest in a long line of messiahs at Princes Park, Cripps mirrors fellow 2013 draftee Bontempelli in not just age (both will be 25 by the end of November), but also as a young skipper with two All-Australian blazers.

The Blue’s midfield bull is another victim of shorter quarters with his average disposals dipping from 28 to just above 21 and his clearance stats shifting from 8.5 to a still impressive 6.8. Should Cripps begin to receive some help in the engine room, it would go a long way to realising Carlton supporters day dreams of their number 9 and David Teague holding the premiership cup aloft.

Currently in the midst of a break out season, Christian Petracca has Melbourne fans beaming as he has finally begun to hit his straps. The erstwhile top three draft pick has previously been derided by those whose hearts beat true for issues with decisiveness, foot skills and consistency.

However, so far in 2020, the dynamic Dee looks to have turned a corner. Prior to Round 11, Petracca was ranked by AFL Player Ratings as the best player in the competition. This rise can be attributed to his clanger count remaining stable from the previous season even though he is finding the football more (up from 18.6 to 24.4) than in 2019.

THE TAPWORK TRIO

Those with pace will tire as the game wears on, but the tall blokes don’t get any smaller. These three are the league’s eminent bigs.

At the time of writing, Max Gawn has recorded the fourth most hit outs this season, but sits second on average per game (31.7). The bearded big man may not be as proficient below his knees as other rucks, but his hit out to advantage numbers are second to none. North of 20% of his hit outs from 2017 to this year find men in Melbourne jumpers. The Dee’s co-captain is also more than handy behind the football, sitting fourth in the league for contested marks.

Sitting atop the totem with the most total hit outs and hit outs per game is Collingwood ruckman Brodie Grundy. The Adelaide native’s numbers at centre bounces are immense recording an average of 35.2 taps a game and since 2017, 16% of these end in the arms of Collingwood midfielders. Grundy’s dominance does not end at the stoppage, as he acts as another midfielder averaging 3.9 clearances and 15.8 disposals a game.

Continuing in the vein of big men borderline transcending position, we come to Nic Naitanui. The 201cm Eagle is also as good on the ground as he is in the air. Ranked third in the league for both total hit outs and hit outs per game (307 into 30.7), Naitanui has also collected the ninth most clearances of any player this season averaging a ludicrous 5.5 a game. It must also be noted that over the past three seasons, 17.3% of Nic Nat’s taps have been to advantage.

THE BOOKENDS

As the old adage goes, one position wins memberships, the other wins premierships. Any successful team needs a quality spearhead as well someone at the opposite end desperate to keep the opponent’s quiet.  

With the 2015 and 2016 Coleman medals stuffed in his sock drawer and currently en route to winning a third, Josh Kennedy is still the most damaging key forward in the game. Having kicked 2.1 against Carlton, the West Coast spearhead is currently the league’s leading goal kicker this year with 24. The bearded Eagle is not just scarily accurate once he comes to the end of his stuttering set shot run, but he is still providing defenders with headaches, averaging a league high 2.9 marks inside fifty per game in 2020.

Staking his claim as not only the best defender in the league, but also for the status of second best player is Nick Haynes. The quiet achieving Giant with the man bun is impenetrable inside defensive fifty. Haynes is ranked first in the league for marks per game (8.1) and fifth for intercepts (7.3) whilst averaging 17.5 disposals at an efficiency of nearly 75%. The one-time first round draft pick is the model modern defender and at 28, expect him to be thwarting the efforts of your favourite forward for many years still to come.

THE AUTUMN YEARED CHAMPIONS

In 1985, Scottish post-punk outfit Simple Minds implored us not to forget about them. In 2020, the same is asked of you for this pair of future Hall of Famers.

If you are new to the game, consider this your education. If you somehow aren’t sold on this pair’s credentials, you are a harsher judge than Simon Cowell.

Who knows how long both Gary Ablett Jr and Lance Franklin have left before they hang the boots up, so sit back and enjoy these magicians finest tricks.