The 14 best draft bargains in AFL history

Sleepers, smokies, bargains, sliders; there are a lot of terms used to describe a steal when it comes to the AFL Draft. It will take a few years before we know who stands out from the 2022 draft class, but over the course of the last 30ish years, there have been a few hidden gems that slipped past most clubs only to later emerge as history-altering talents. With a few appearances from the 2001 “super draft” and a large number of rookie selections making their presence known, here are the 14 best bargains in the history of the AFL draft.

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Honourable mentions: Rory Laird (5th in 2011 rookie), Luke Breust (47th in 2008 rookie), Matthew Priddis (31st in 2005 rookie), James Sicily (56th in 2013), Aaron Sandilands (33rd in 2001 rookie), Ryan O’Keefe (56th in 1999), Harris Andrews (61st in 2014), Tyson Edwards (21st in 1994 rookie), Jake Lloyd (16th in 2013 rookie), Tom Stewart (40th in 2016)

Lachie Neale – Pick 58, 2011

2020 Brownlow Medalist
5x Best and Fairest winner (2015, 2016; 2019-2020, 2022)
3x All-Australian (2019-2020, 2022)
220 games (112 goals)
156 Brownlow votes

Brisbane’s bullocking midfielder still has time to add to his impressive résumé, but Lachie Neale has already done enough to be viewed as a steal from the 2011 draft. Initially selected by Fremantle, Neale had a decent career as a Docker with a pair of Doig Medals to go along with three Ross Glendinning Medals as best on ground in the Western Derby. Finishing 2nd for total disposals last year, and gathering the most touches in his Brownlow-winning campaign back in 2020, Neale would love to add a premiership medal to his trophy cabinet after resigning with the Lions until the end of the 2026 season.

Adam Goodes – Pick 43, 1997

2005 & 2012 premiership player
2003 & 2006 Brownlow Medalist
3x Best and Fairest winner (2003, 2006 & 2011)
4x All-Australian (2003, 2006, 2009, 2011)
3x Sydney leading goalkicker
372 games – SYD record (464 goals)
163 Brownlow votes

There aren’t many athletes that can claim two Grand Final wins AND be recognised as an Australian of the Year. Adam Goodes was a champion player during his era, perhaps recognised as the greatest Indigenous player of all time. Spending his entire career with the Swans, Goodes’ CV speaks for itself, playing more games than anyone in the club’s history, while also chalking up more than his fair share of individual accolades. Goodes was named as the ruck, wing, interchange and forward pocket in the four All-Australian teams he made during his career, highlighting his elite versatility and ability to play a variety of roles for Sydney over 17 seasons.

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Dane Swan – Pick 58, 2001

2010 premiership player
2011 Brownlow Medalist
2010 Leigh Matthews Trophy recipient
3x Best and Fairest winner (2008-2010)
5x All-Australian (2009-2013)
258 games (211 goals)
186 Brownlow votes

Dane Swan took a few years to get going in the AFL, but once he started to excel, he emerged as one of the greatest midfielders in the modern era. Drafted with Collingwood’s 4th pick in the 2001 super draft, Swanny’s prime positioned him as a ball-winning beast, quickly becoming a favourite in the fantasy community as well. A 2011 Brownlow win reiterates how unstoppable Swan was at the peak of his powers, helping the Magpies experience sustained success and eight consecutive finals appearances in the late ’00s and early ’10s. Instilling himself in a star-studded midfield that included the likes of Steele Sidebottom and Scott Pendlebury, Swan was the main catalyst when it came to chalking up possessions, gathering 40 or more disposals on 13 different occasions.

Jeremy McGovern – Rookie Pick 44, 2010

2018 premiership player
4x All-Australian (2016-2019)
163 games (37 goals)
17 Brownlow votes

Injuries have played a role over the last three seasons, but the Eagles can already consider Jeremy McGovern a bargain. They gave him a chance late in 2010, and it took nearly four years before McGovern finally broke through for an AFL debut. Once he did, McGovern established himself as one of the best interceptors in the entire league, later breaking the record for the most intercept marks taken in a single season (77 back in 2018). There aren’t many non-midfielders in the AFL that make four consecutive All-Australian teams in less than 130 career games, and his defensive dominance is an integral part of West Coast’s success, embodied by his role in the 2018 Grand Final triumph.

Gary Ablett Jr – Pick 40, 2001

2007 & 2009 premiership player
2009 & 2013 Brownlow Medalist
5x Leigh Matthews Trophy recipient (2007-2009, 2012-2013)
Gold Coast captain 2011-2016
6x Best and Fairest winner (2007, 2009; 2011-2013, 2017)
8x All-Australian (2007-2014)
2006 Geelong leading goalkicker
2x Gold Coast leading goalkicker
357 games (445 goals)
262 Brownlow votes

Not only is Gary Ablett Jr the greatest draft sleeper of all time, but he has a legitimate case as the greatest player we’ve ever seen. That’s not hyperbole or meant as a slight to any of the other footballing greats, but “The Little Master” was something else. Originally he joined the Cats as a father-son selection in 2001, with some claiming Geelong drafted him purely based on his last name and not his footballing ability. Fast forward to the present day and there may not be a more accomplished footballer with Ablett owning a pair of flags, two Brownlows, the most All-Aus nods ever and the most Brownlow votes of anyone to appear at the top level.

It’s fair to assume that he would’ve experienced more premiership success if he stayed with the Cats, but leaving for Gold Coast to spend seven years as their franchise player saw him record some insane individual numbers – including 53 touches in 2012 vs. Collingwood. Another graduate from the ultra-impressive 2001 draft class, Ablett Jr’s trophy cabinet speaks for itself, and his place amongst footballing royalty is well deserved.

Brett Kirk – Rookie Pick 40, 1998

2005 premiership player
Swans captain 2005–2007, 2009-2010
2x Best and Fairest winner (2005 & 2007)
2004 All-Australian
241 games (91 goals)
81 Brownlow votes

Known largely for the role he played for Sydney as a run-with player and feisty tagger, Brett Kirk was still an unreal footballer in his own right. His ability to nullify the opposition’s best player was worth its weight in gold and his selflessness contributed greatly to the overall success the Swans experienced during his time at the club. Serving as the Sydney co-captain for five seasons, Kirk didn’t miss a single game from Round 14 2002 until he retired in 2010; 200 consecutive games later. A dual B&F winner, the fearless Swans leader was one of the most courageous players of his time and recording the most tackles in the 2005 Grand Final exemplifies that.

Robbie Gray – Pick 55, 2006

3x Best and Fairest winner (2014-2016)
4x All-Australian (2014-2015, 2017-2018)
2x Port Adelaide leading goalkicker
271 games (367 goals)
97 Brownlow votes

When I talked about the greatest Port Adelaide player on the SBF podcast a few months ago, Robbie Gray’s name was one that came up regularly. Selected 55th overall between the likes of Matt Tyler and Gary Moss back in 2006, no one expected Gray to transform himself into a Power legend, winning a record 5x Showdown Medals during his 271-game career. Four times recognised an All-Australian, Gray remained a constant threat in Port Adelaide’s forward line until the day he pulled the pin, regularly delivering a crucial goal (or two) in the clutch and dragging his team to victory. There are better players who have donned the teal and black, but not many.

Stephen Milne – Rookie Pick 23, 2000

2x All-Australian (2011-2012)
4x St Kilda leading goalkicker
275 games (574 goals)
37 Brownlow votes

If you weren’t a St Kilda fan, then it’s highly likely that you thought Stephen Milne was a pest. Wreaking havoc in the forward 50 for 13 years with the Saints, Milne managed to kick 50 or more goals in six different seasons, which is an enormous accomplishment for a small forward. A career-high bag of 11 against Brisbane back in 2005 is a clear highlight from his playing days, and if a bounce of the ball went his way back in the 2010 Grand Final, he could hold a special place in St Kilda folklore. Still, he was beloved by Saints fans and when he hung up the boots in 2013, Milne had the record for the most games played by a rookie drafted player, a record that was passed not long after by…

Dean Cox – Rookie Pick 28, 2000

2006 premiership player
2008 Best and Fairest winner
6x All-Australian (2005-2008, 2011-2012)
290 games – WCE record (169 goals)
71 Brownlow votes

Drafted just five picks after Stephen Milne in 2000, Dean Cox was a transformative player, changing our opinion of what we expected from a ruckman on a weekly basis. Prior to being selected by the Eagles, Cox was honing his craft at WAFL level, helping East Perth to taste premiership success in 2000, winning the Simpson Medal as the best player on the ground. His ability to play as a 4th midfielder alongside a star-studded engine room that boasted Chris Judd, Ben Cousins and Daniel Kerr made the West Coast Eagles of the early 21st century a juggernaut. At his time of retirement, the revolutionary ruck had surpassed Milne for the most games by a player who was originally selected as a rookie, and as it stands right now, no Eagle has appeared in more contests than Dean Cox.

Josh Kennedy – Pick 40, 2006

2012 premiership player
Swans captain 2017-2021
3x Best and Fairest winner (2012, 2015-2016)
3x All-Australian (2012, 2014 & 2016)
290 games (157 goals)
146 Brownlow votes

The curtain has only just closed on the glittering career of Josh P. Kennedy, with one of Sydney’s greatest players succumbing to injuries and unable to see out the 2022 campaign. A decade earlier though, the Swans pounced on the former father-son Hawk, with Kennedy managing just 13 games in brown and gold. Just because Hawthorn wasn’t able to reap the rewards, doesn’t mean Kennedy shouldn’t be considered as a steal though, with a trio of B&F wins and All-Aus nods to go along with a premiership W in 2012. We didn’t start recording contested possessions until the late 90’s, but the Swans star is one of only three players (along with Patrick Dangerfield and Gary Ablett Jr) to accumulate 4000 or more such possessions, with a 2016 Gary Ayers award win highlighting his ability to perform on the game’s biggest stage.

Brent Harvey – Pick 47, 1995

1999 premiership player
Kangaroos captain 2009-2011
5x Best & Fairest winner (2003, 2005, 2007-2008, 2010)
4x All-Australian (2000, 2005, 2007-2008)
432 games – AFL record (518 goals)
191 Brownlow votes

Can you believe that the V/AFL games record holder wasn’t drafted until the 47th pick back in 1995? Brent ‘Boomer’ Harvey didn’t take long to prove that he belonged, claiming a premiership in 1999 and excelling as one of North Melbourne’s greatest footballers. Recording an absurd 1055 bounces during his playing days (the only player in the 1K bounce club), Harvey can be remembered driving the Roos into attack by streaking down the wing and then choosing to set up his teammates or finish the job himself – currently sitting 2nd in club history for goals trailing only Wayne Carey. His slight stature may have scared some teams off on draft night, but Boomer quickly proved the doubters wrong and remained one of the most consistent players the game has ever seen throughout 21 seasons as a Kangaroo.

Tom Hawkins – Pick 41, 2006

2009, 2011 & 2022 premiership player
2012 Best and Fairest winner
5x All-Australian (2012, 2019-2022)
11x Geelong leading goalkicker
2020 Coleman Medalist
327 games (732 goals)

66 Brownlow votes

If he can stay healthy, then Geelong colossus Tom Hawkins has a realistic chance to surpass Joel Selwood for the most games in club history. He has already proven himself as one of the greatest key forwards of his generation, winning the Cats goal-kicking award 11 times over his 16 years in the AFL system. In fact, over the last 11 seasons, Hawkins has kicked 625 goals, more than anyone in the league, bettering the likes of Lance Franklin (596), Jack Riewoldt (558) and Josh J. Kennedy (574). So far, it’s only equated to one Coleman Medal victory, however, the Tomahawk is more than capable of setting up his own teammates as well, residing in second place for career goal assists trailing only Eddie Betts. The Cats wouldn’t have thought they’d get such a transcendent star at pick 41 back in 2006, and there’s still a bit of time left for Hawkins to add to his spectacular CV.

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Matthew Boyd – Rookie Pick 23, 2002

2016 premiership player
Bulldogs captain 2011-13
3x Best and Fairest winner (2009, 2011-2012)
3x All-Australian (2009, 2011, 2016)
292 games (86 goals)
108 Brownlow votes

Being acknowledged as an All-Australian in a premiership season is a monumental achievement. To do it in your 14th AFL season is even more impressive. Affectionately known as the ‘Peanut Man’, Matthew Boyd carved out a stellar career with the Bulldogs, capturing an elusive flag in 2016 following a decade of dominance. Boyd initially began his career as a defender, but the Dogs often deployed him through the midfield which saw him capture three B&F crowns in four seasons while he averaged 30.8 touches a game. He was one of his side’s best performers on Grand Final day in 2016 as well, chalking up 27 disposals to break a 62-year premiership drought for Footscray and when he called time on his playing days one season later, he took the mantle from Dean Cox for the most games played by someone selected in the rookie draft – a record that still stands today.

Brian Lake – Pick 71, 2001

2013, 2014 & 2015 premiership player
2013 Norm Smith Medalist
2007 Best and Fairest winner
2x All-Australian (2009-2010)
251 games (34 goals)
26 Brownlow votes

The artist formerly known as Brian Harris, Lake made himself famous for his role in three straight premiership victories with the Hawks a decade ago. Originally selected 71st overall, Lake still had an impressive career with the Bulldogs over an 11-year period that saw him capture a pair of All-Australian blazers and a Charles Sutton Medal in 2007. He went on to spend just three years at Hawthorn where he became an indispensable part of their back-6, culminating in a Norm Smith Medal win for his 22-disposal cameo against Fremantle in the 2013 GF. Lake went down as one the best backs of his era and proved to be serious value for the Bulldogs in 6th round of the 2001 draft (yes, 2001 again), rounding out his trophy cabinet in his final three seasons. 

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