ADELAIDE CROWS

For a team that got within a goal of last year's grand final, it's surprisingly difficult to get a read on Adelaide. They have three of the competition's young guns in Patrick Dangerfield, Taylor Walker and Rory Sloane (all 23 this year) and a boom teenager in Brad Crouch, but they have a far tougher draw than last year, and could not possibly expect a repeat dream run with injuries. The loss of Kurt Tippett will hurt, while opposition teams will be better prepared for them. Adelaide's performance in away matches might well determine whether they play in the finals.


4 PLAYERS TO WATCH

TAYLOR WALKER
An old-school forward who can seriously turn a game. Questions remain over controlling his aggression (he was suspended twice last year) and how well he will go in a restructured forward line.

JOSH JENKINS
Has a ruckman's build and vertical leap, but the agility and speed of a midfielder. Has impressed over summer. Can play forward, but might be asked to have a turn in defence.

BRAD CROUCH
A teenager with talent to burn and a seasoned body. He will win plenty of the ball and could play all 22 games.

SAM JACOBS
With injury question marks over the likes of Nic Naitanui and Aaron Sandilands, the big Crow ($546,300) is a reliable ruck option. Is relatively cheap and has been durable and consistent in the past.

PREDICTION: 8th-9th.

CARLTON BLUES

Two words, Mick Malthouse, will ensure that Carlton are under the football microscope more than any other AFL team in 2013. And early signs suggest the Blues have warmly embraced his arrival, with consistent stories of a revigorated atmosphere at a club that has been a bit part player for too long.

While Carlton are at pains to not disrespect the former coaching staff headed by Brett Ratten, Malthouse has brought genuine excitement to Visy Park. He has also quickly built relationships with his troops, although he made it very clear that mediocrity will not be tolerated when Mitch Robinson was called in after his self described "hiccup" at the Big Day Out concert.


The Malthouse expectation is he needs to find 15 per cent improvement in the Carlton team to take them to winning 12-13-14 games, instead of the 11 wins and 10th placing in 2012.


Such is his belief in a tried and tested game plan that Malthouse believes it can lead to significant improvement. He also sees consistency in selection will provide the confidence that has been lacking in some. As to how advanced the Blues will be early, it comes down to them having no choice given an exceptionally difficult start to the season where they play Richmond, Collingwood, Geelong, West Coast and Adelaide in their first five matches.


So what do they need to improve? A tall defender (maybe Matthew Watson) to step up and help out Michael Jamison and Lachie Henderson. And a tall forward, possibly Sam Rowe or Luke Mitchell, to ease the burden on Jarrad Waite. Fix those two and get consistent seasons from two of Matthew Kreuzer, Shaun Hampson or Robbie Warnock and September is beckoning.

5 PLAYERS TO WATCH

TOM BELL
A former football player who was also an elite junior distance runner, Bell's 95kg frame means he is well placed to compete with the ever-growing midfield bodies at rival clubs. Needs to improve his disposal but has been a stand-out track worker over summer. Another poster boy for mature-aged recruits.

LEVI CASBOULT
Could be the player every team desires as in a marking forward who can go into the ruck (i.e. Jarryd Roughead, Kurt Tippett). The Blues are genuinely excited by the boy from Beaconsfield who can take a good grab and who relishes the contest. Casboult is also a good mover considering his 198cm frame and has been working hard on his disposal.

JEFF GARLETT
Last season for 'Jeffy' was below his electric best of 2011 (48 goals) and 2010 (39). But he is very much in the plans of his new coach and has impressed over pre-season. His fitness levels will enable him to push up the ground where the Blues are hoping he can become a Lewis Jetta-type.

BRYCE GIBBS
The fascinating part of the Gibbs evolution is where will his new coach play him? The 24-year-old has flagged a desire to become a genuine midfielder and has shed his leadership duties to concentrate solely on becoming the best he can be. His precise kicking into the forward 50m is so important in today's game.

LUKE MITCHELL
At 21 still a kid and one who hasn't had an uninterrupted crack due to serious injuries. At 198cm he can take a power grab and kicks straight. He is also seen as a natural leader and one of the few extroverts on the Carlton list. All he needs now is to show he belongs at senior level.



PREDICTION: 3rd-4th

COLLINGWOOD MAGPIES

There are plenty of sound reasons to be bullish about Collingwood this season, not least the top-end quality and the depth on their list. The Magpies went close last season, despite having four of arguably their best 22 sidelined with knee reconstructions, and their key forward seemingly distracted by very public contract negotiations. The absences meant coach Nathan Buckley got games into promising youngsters such as Jamie Elliott, Jackson Paine, Paul Seedsman, Marley Williams and Caolan Mooney.

Now those hungry youngsters will find themselves jostling for spots in a 22 that can expect to have greater access to the likes of Luke Ball, Andrew Krakouer, Brent Macaffer, Ben Johnson and Alan Didak, all of whom missed slabs of 2011 through injury. Furthermore, the list is bolstered by the addition of seasoned recruits Clinton Young, Jordan Russell, Quinten Lynch and Ben Hudson.

On every line the Pies have pivotal players at the peak of their powers, all with considerable finals experience given this team has played in the past seven Septembers. Furthermore Buckley will be better for having a season as senior coach under his belt, and his charges will be more polished at adhering to his game plan and demands.


5 PLAYERS TO WATCH

TRAVIS CLOKE
So was Cloke's patchy form last year down to the distraction of contract talks, was it an anomaly, or was it a sign his powers are diminishing? His form in 2013 will tell us more. He is a crucial player, not least because he would be arguably the most difficult for the Pies to cover.

DAYNE BEAMS
Had a break-out year in 2012, claiming the Copeland Trophy at age 22. Wins plenty of the footy in traffic but is also damaging when he gets into space and is a proven goalkicker. Can expect more opposition attention this season, but coped well when tagged late last year. Will be intriguing to see if her can continue improving.

JORDAN RUSSELL
Only played seven games for Carlton last year, but could proved a handy pick-up for the Magpies. Is a versatile and deceptively quick defender, who can shut down an opponent or run to create, and is capable of taking the kick-ins. He gives Collingwood more options in how they use Heath Shaw, Harry O'Brien and Alan Toovey.

DALE THOMAS
Is coming off the most challenging season of his career, largely due to niggling injuries. Had ankle surgery in October, hampering his preparation for the season, but if that returns to 100 per cent expect Thomas to again be among the Pies most influential players.

LUKE BALL
Will be interesting to see how Ball bounces back from his knee reconstruction, particularly after being eased through the pre-season. His in-and-under nature adds a dimension to Collingwood's clearances. Worth a look for your SuperCoach team, too, at just $301,800.

PREDICTION: 1st-2nd.

ESSENDON BOMBERS

We want to talk about Joe Daniher's leap, and Brendon Goddard's exquisite disposal, and Tom Bellchambers's coming of age. Instead those totally valid questions have been shoved aside by the elephant in the room that would dwarf King Kong. How can you predict ladder positions, and ponder premiership aspirations, when 40 players are being investigated by ASADA and the AFL for potential doping infractions?

If Essendon managed to stay in a bubble of serenity - avoiding the distracting interviews of players and staff, and parrying the constant questions from fans - and won the flag it would be the most extraordinary story in recent memory. The best they can hope is a speedy mid-season resolution that exonerates players and allows them to get on with business. Because this list is now seriously talented, and the acquisition of those players means Essendon's premiership window is just dawning.

5 PLAYERS TO WATCH

BRENDON GODDARD
First let's concentrate on what Goddard is, not what he isn't. He is an elite kick, a resilient performer averaging 20 games a year, and versatile on-baller who can sweep through the back half or play wing. He might not like a tag, he might not kick enough goals, and he might have underperformed in recent seasons, but he is exactly what Essendon need.

BRENT STANTON
Stanton exploded out of the blocks last year before pesky taggers twigged to his running patterns, considerably dimming his effectiveness. If left unchecked he will shred opponents. So with Jobe Watson untaggable, who do opponents run with? Stanton or Goddard? Essendon will hope the player left off the chain will demolish rivals - Goddard via his booming right foot, and Stanton with his exceptional tank.

MICHAEL HURLEY
Fans want a decision on Hurley as a forward or back, but in reality Essendon's injury list might define his position as much as his own play. If Tayte Pears, Cale Hooker, Jake Carlisle and Dustin Fletcher stay fit, he plays forward. Finally he looks cut, determined, and fit. Yet Hurley has never kicked more than 27 goals a season, and just once strung together three weeks of multiple goals. It means he enters 2013 with a point to prove.

JAKE MELKSHAM
Melksham represents the under-performers of 2012, players who through injury or the club's controversial fitness regime battled to make good on their potential. Those players include Travis Colyer, Heath Hocking, David Myers, Cale Hooker, Tayte Pears, and Jason Winderlich. If the Dons get big years from four or five of those middle-tier performers, they quickly shoot up the table.

JOE DANIHER
No pressure, Joe. You have only been dubbed the most talented TAC Cup player since Chris Judd. Essendon keep trying to douse the hype, but without injury he plays 18 games this year. He has it all - workrate, fiery determination, speed, one-grab hands, and poise below his knees that belies his 201cm frame. Let's just hope the Essendon injury curse stays away from this father-son draft steal.

PREDICTION: 7th-8th.

GEELONG CATS

Restocking or rebuilding? We'll find out a lot more about Geelong over the next six months. The Cats uncharacteristically limped out of the finals race last season off the back of an elimination final loss to Fremantle that had them looking vulnerable. The seventh placing came after five successive top four finishes and three flags.

Internally, Geelong believe the restocking of three ready-made recruits, the maturation of a number of talented young players and the continued hunger of premiership stars will drive the club. The Cats traded for young star Josh Caddy, who should benefit from being settled back in Victoria, as well as picked up veteran defender Jared Rivers and ruckman Hamish McIntosh. Rivers won't be a replacement for the irreplaceable - retired champ Matthew Scarlett - but he is a strong defender who will certainly help out down back, while McIntosh strengthens the ruck division.

Importantly, Geelong have blooded 15 young players over the past two seasons, including 10 last year. The kids are in place and the traded players will be straight into the 22 if they are fit. So it will come back to the hunger of those players who have won flags and whether they want to endure the pain again. If the hunger is there, and they have an ounce of luck, you would never say never about this Geelong side..

5 PLAYERS TO WATCH

TOM HAWKINS
The 'Tomahawk' has come of age to become one of the most dominant forwards in the game. The interesting thing is to see if he can maintain that All-Australian and best-and-fairest winning form. There is no reason to think that he won't. An imposing player, Hawkins just gets the job done.

TRAVIS VARCOE
Varcoe is one of the Cats' most important players when he is right to go. He managed only one game last year due to a stress fracture in his foot. He showed good signs in the first NAB Cup game, running off half back. He will be crucial to Geelong if his body stays sound.

NATHAN VARDY
This big power forward could be anything if his hip holds out. Has had no luck in recent seasons due to injury, but looms as a 10-year forward and partner in attack for Hawkins if he stays fit. Has enjoyed a solid pre-season and is seemingly ready to go.

JOSH CADDY
Can't wait to see how the much-talked about inside midfielder goes in his first season back in his home state. He admits he still has a fair bit to learn, but who better to learn off than some of the Cats' midfield greats.

PAUL CHAPMAN
This is a big year for Chappy who is entering 2013 with a one-year deal, but with a desire to play on for much longer. Geelong fans will be hoping he can maintain his lofty standards - even as a 31-year-old.

PREDICTION: 7th-8th.

GOLD COAST SUNS

Gold Coast have been given every chance to advance in 2013. We'll soon know if last year's end-of-season flourish was genuine or not as the Suns take on all other bottom-six teams from 2012 in the first eight rounds. With 11 youngsters within striking distance of 50 games this year, the addition of 2011 mini-draft selection Jaeger O'Meara and experienced campaigners Tom Murphy and Greg Broughton, don't be surprised to see the Suns sitting mid-table mid-year.

4 PLAYERS TO WATCH

JAEGER O'MEARA
He is going to be a midfield star. May be easily forgotten given he was selected in the GWS mini-draft nearly 18 months ago, but he won't be out of sight nor mind for too much longer.

DAVID SWALLOW
Could be the Harley Bennell of 2013. Last year was ruined by injury, but the 2010 No.1 pick had started 2012 like a house on fire. Another pre-season under his belt may be all he needs.

GARY ABLETT
Is there any need to wax lyrical about the champ? His hefty SuperCoach price tag of $740,500 is $65,000 more than the next most expensive player, but the Brownlow Medallist is worth it – he's a class above.

GREG BROUGHTON
Broughton is a player you need a friendly reminder about. Ross Lyon didn't do him too many favours last year. But the utility should have a rebound campaign.

PREDICTION: 15th-16th.

GREATER WESTERN SYDNEY GIANTS

Take a bow Giants; as first years go, theirs was seriously impressive. Between Jeremy Cameron standing on defenders' backs, Toby Greene regularly racking up 30 possessions and Stephen Coniglio slicing through traffic, the Giants chiefs got it dead right with their list build.


They play tough, contested footy, and are already raving about the influence of coach-in-waiting Leon Cameron on the likes of inside midfielders Dylan Shiel and Coniglio. This year they will still be vulnerable down back, but the emergence of Jonathon Patton and super-slick No. 1 pick Lachie Whitfield will get more tongues wagging.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Adam Treloar
Has flown under the radar despite finishing last season like a freight train. Had 37 possessions against Collingwood and ranked second at the club for disposals from round 13 onwards. An elite goalkicking midfielder in the making.

Jonathon Patton
Last year it was Jeremy Cameron; this season it's Patton's turn to light up the forward line. Strong-marking forwards with his mobility at 197cm are a rare commodity, so enjoy.

Lachie Whitfield
Silk on a wing/back flank. The No.1 draft pick is skinnier than the war-horses we saw emerge in orange last year, but already on track for a round-one berth.

Callan Ward
It's easy to forget Ward is only 22 years old. Few players are more fearless than this bloke. Should break through the 100-point-per game SuperCoach average mark for the first time in his career this season.

PREDICTION: 17th-18th

HAWTHORN HAWKS

Nothing the Hawks do between now and preliminary final weekend matters. We all assume they will be there come the business end of proceedings, it's only their ability to deliver the premiership that has become annoyingly elusive that counts. Alastair Clarkson's men have the draw from hell to open the season, playing each of last year's seven other finalists in the first seven rounds. It's a test.

The Hawks have been slow starters in recent years and their grand final appearance puts them behind others in terms of pre-season preparations. But as the old cliché goes, if you want to be the best you have to beat the best and there's no reason Hawthorn supporters should fear the worst for the opening two months of the season.

There will be ongoing talk about Lance Franklin's contract, but teams can put that sort of thing to one side. Brian Lake adds considerable depth to the back line and could be the missing link in the puzzle, while youngster Alex Woodward is the only pre-season casualty so far. Everything is in place for the Hawks. Apart from the cruel end to Matthew Suckling's season.

5 PLAYERS TO WATCH

BRIAN LAKE
Don't underestimate the value Lake can add to Hawthorn's premiership assault. Let's match the Hawks against last year's foes, Sydney. If Lake plays in last year's grand final he frees Josh Gibson up to play on someone like Mitch Morton. Does Morton bob up to kick a couple of crucial goals if that's the case? Lake also takes pressure off the oft-maligned Ryan Schoenmakers. A crucial cog.

JOSH GIBSON
Gibson was already the AFL's premier spoiler and third man up and that's before Lake arrived. One can only imagine the 29-year-old will have even more freedom to roam the backline and marshal his troops knowing Lake's ability to keep a danger forward in check. Recorded an average of 8.1 spoils and 1.7 intercept marks a game last year.

LUKE HODGE
How will Hodge be managed through the 2013 season? Will he have to be managed at all? The skipper played only 10 games last year, left frustrated by a left knee injury. Proved his class in his return game last year when, playing as a permanent forward, he kicked five goals against Essendon. Expect Hodge to play plenty of pinch-hit roles forward and back.

BRAD HILL
According to some teammates Hill has been tearing up the track over the summer and big improvements are expected from the 180cm jet. In his first season at the club last year Hill played five games, four as the substitute. Won't play all games this year, but can be expected to be a capable performer when given the chance.

LIAM SHIELS
Shiels was tipped to explode last year and, while the raw numbers don't tell the full story, the 21-year-old revelled in his new role as a run-with player. Said last year he only finds out his weekly role days before each game, but his hit list of Brent Harvey, Kieren Jack, Scott Selwood and Brent Stanton suggests his coaches are more than confident in his ability to do a job.

PREDICTION: 1st-2nd.

MELBOURNE DEMONS

Like any power forward, Chris Dawes yearns for express delivery. Kick it long and quick and give me space is the goalkicker's mantra. That tall target role was a key part of Melbourne's pitch that prompted the Magpies premiership big man to shift camp down Olympic Boulevard to ply his trade as a permanent forward.

And the Demons' reliance on Dawes will be even more pronounced if Mitch Clark's rehab from that serious right foot injury stalls or drags on too deep into the season. Simply, Melbourne need to find more scoreboard contributors in their front half to start the ladder climb from a lowly 16th. To emphasis that goal dearth, Clark was still the major goalkicker by a wide margin despite missing the entire second half of 2012.

The Demons have gambled with that urgent need to apply scoreboard pressure to opposition teams. Even Dawes's calf problems from last year surfaced again in the pre-season. Cam Pedersen couldn't break into North Melbourne's team, but he won Werribee's best and fairest and he can take contested marks. Geelong's dual premiership forward Shannon Byrnes will be 29 in early April and the much-travelled David Rodan is approaching 30 with renewed enthusiasm if dodgy knees.

Beefing up strength and endurance was an off-season priority again, particularly to find more options in the midfield rotations. Young Jack Viney shows the skills and grunt to assist Jones, Grimes, Trengove and Co. to at least get the traffic heading in the right direction for Dawes and others targets.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

JORDIE MCKENZIE
Has enjoyed a full pre-season to load up for the vital run-with roles against the targeted opposition ball magnets. His stoppage work and defensive pressure is first class, with more than 100 tackles in each of the past three years. And he knows how to get the ball himself, averaging 17 possessions last season.

MARK JAMAR
Will be called upon to shoulder the bulk of the ruck duties again, particularly, with young Max Gawn back on the long-term injury list with hamstring troubles and the uncertainty over Jake Spencer's development. While Jamar is a reliable tap ruckman, he must adapt to the new separation rules at stoppages and boundary throw-ins.

JEREMY HOWE
Was one of the standout performers in a dark season for supporters. His spring-heeled antics earned him an amazing eight Mark of the Round nominations and, to no-one's surprise, he ultimately won the award. But there's more to this Demon with his competitive assets and goal nous always a worry for opponents.

TOM GILLIES
Probably his last chance to become an established AFL defender with this one-year contract. The Demons are banking on his versatility to curb the tall or quick as the replacement for Jared Rivers down back. Managed only 13 games in four seasons as he struggled to push into an elite Geelong backline. But he did win the Cats' best first-year player in 2009.

JACK VINEY
With such a rich family history at the club, his every stat will be closely scrutinised and compared with father Todd. But the kid gives the impression he will forge his own history with his fearless attack on the ball. And he has already been tested and hardened against the bigger b