Talented Key Defender Jacob Weitering kicks for goal as a forward against Richmond – is it a position he should continue to play?

One of the shining lights in an otherwise disappointing opening to the season for Carlton was the performance of Jacob Weitering.  The 2nd year, ex-number one draft selection kicked three goals, took seven marks and looked impressive up forward.  Coach Brendon Bolton stated after the game that he sees Weitering as a swingman into the future, stating it would be good for his development to play at both ends.

It would be the smart move, however, to convert Weitering to be a full-time forward.  It’s Carlton’s best chance at allowing Weitering to prove the most value to Carlton as a team.

Weitering is an extremely talented footballer.  There were, however, question marks surrounding the wisdom of selecting him with the first pick in the draft, due to the value provided by a defender.

Different positions have different skills, capabilities required of them and follow different development curves.  The way that different positions are utilised as part of list management, in particular in the draft, means that the draft isn’t merely about drafting the best available talent – rather it is one tool in wider list management strategising, as we showed with how teams should manage ruckmen as part of their list management strategy.

Key defenders and key forwards are no different in that regard, and understanding how the nature of playing those positions and the draft intertwine.  Champion Data only ranked Weitering fourth in the 2015 draft pool, explaining in its 2016 Prospectus the ability to recruit defenders late in the draft or convert forwards to a defensive position.

Carlton chose Weitering nonetheless, as such we should ask two questions – the first being why is it the case that Weitering should not been selected by Carlton, (that Key Defenders are late draft picks or failed forward, and virtually all of the league’s best key forwards were drafted in the top 10 of the draft), and are Carlton better served with Weitering as a forward?

It is interesting to note that it’s an AFL directive that junior representative football is played differently to the AFL.  The AFL discourages the 18 man rolling zone/press (preferring a 12 man zone) and forces players to be stationed inside the 50 for development purposes in the TAC Cup.

Man-on-man allows for talent to be better identified and the fundamentals of the game to be developed, entirely appropriate for a leagues such as the TAC Cup where the primary intent is to develop players for high levels of adult football and give AFL clubs opportunity to assess the fundamental skills of the game.  However, it means that the AFL scouts and recruiting managers are none too wiser about the ability of these players in the full man rolling zone that is a greater feature in the highest level of the game.

Some players are innately good at playing in a zone, knowing where to position themselves, and communicate that knowledge to others, skills that are unable to be displayed at underage football given the roles.

In any case, even if they could be displayed, it’s debatable that they could be identified anyway, as it is identified largely in certain tactical schemes or through largely unexpected sources.  Josh Gibson turned himself from a solid player into one of the league’s best defenders due to his ability being reflected in Hawthorn’s heavy use of the rolling zone in the last decade.  Matthew Boyd and Dale Morris, one a converted midfielder and another recruited out of the state leagues as a mature-ager and never selected for a TAC Cup squad, led a premiership defence that also heavily used zoning developed in their coach Luke Beveridge’s time as Hawthorn’s defensive coach.

In adjudicating underage talent, it’s a lot easier to determine and project what is tangible, what has physical evidence.  It’s why key forwards from a young age can be identified early – if Tom Hawkins or Lance Franklin demonstrate ability to take marks and kick goals at the National Championships, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out they’ll probably be good at it at AFL level.

Defence, however, is an intangible, abstract concept.  It’s not the act of something being done, it’s the act of stopping something, the ability for the opposition to score,  from ever happening in the first place.

For some players this is demonstrated through tangible means, like being able to take intercept marks or spoil the ball effectively.  For others, however, the intangible ability of defence is achieved through equally intangible means and abilities.  This can include reading the play, positioning, communication, concentration, and so forth – things that are hard to project into the future from analysing underage football, or skills that are only developed in an AFL environment after multiple years of playing, making it harder to project the development in these areas for these underage players.

What does all this have to do with Weitering?  Well, it means, even if she shows talent at the U/18 level as a key defender, that doesn’t translate into being an elite U/18 player.  The list of U/18 All-Australian key defenders since 2005 include names like Austin Lucy, Paul Bower, Tom Collier, Jordan Lisle, Mathew Watson, Patrick McCarthy, Michael Talia and Brody Miocek, with only Michael Hurley and Alex Rance as players since 2005 who have established themselves in the AFL.  The skills that Weitering demonstrated in defence aren’t necessarily translatable in a key defensive era where the likes of Jeremy McGovern uses the strong marking he demonstrated up forward with the ability to zone off and be participant in a zone that nobody can adjudicate at the under 18 level.

The second question, about whether Weitering provides value up forward, depends on where he can create the most value for his team.

Australian football is often very similar to other sports in areas like this.  The question is often asked why salaries in the NBA correlate to offensive production and not defensive production, when both are 50% of the game.  The answer is ultimately because a team can always put the ball in the hands of its best offensive player, whilst a defender is always responding to the actions of the other team.  Although simplifying it to a massive extent, an NBA team with a good perimeter defender means that the opposition can play a post-based game, and a good defensive big man means the other team can play a fast-paced perimeter game, with the Golden State Warrior’s small-ball style ushering in the decline of big, defence-only rim protecting centres that were all the rage only a few years previously.

The same principle applies to talented key position players in the AFL.  If a player can play equally well at either end of the ground, it is better to play them forward.  They can dictate terms, force the opposition defensive structure to react to their presence, and demand the ball be kicked to them, having a greater influence on the game.

In defence, their involvement depends on how the opposition are moving the ball up the ground, and how the opposition structure their forward line.Opposition teams can take a defender away from the contest if he follows his man.  If your midfield is pressuring the ball effectively and you have an Easton Wood type zoning off and taking intercept marks to low quality dump kicks, and you had a player who can Alex Rance in defence and Tom Hawkins up forward, having him play like Alex Rance in defence would be a waste given the job’s half done with such effective midfield pressure.

The question is now asked of Weitering – even though he’s a natural defender, how much better of a defender than forward does he have to be to provide most value in defence?  We also have to be concerned about the fallacy of sunk costs – just because Carlton should have taken Schache instead of Weitering, doesn’t mean we should play Weitering up forward for that reason.

Players like Daniel Talia are clearly not anywhere near good enough forwards to be played there, whilst others like Harris Andrews have been debuted, or even trialled up forward, whilst showing promising signs, ultimately provide more value in defence.

It’s important to then not over-value Weitering’s performance in defence given that’s what he was drafted for, and not to under-estimate his performances up forward.  Whilst impressive for a first-year player, Weitering’s material impact wasn’t as significant as many believe – he only averaged 5.5 intercept possessions.  Up forward, meanwhile, in the rare times last season, he was relatively impressive, kicking two against West Coast, and obviously kicking three against Richmond.  For a player who is a ‘natural’ defender he played up forward effectively enough to suggest that it is of greater value to continue to play him in that position.

Considering all the above, Carlton were right to play Weitering up forward and should continue to play him in that position into the future.