Former Essendon captain-coach Des Tuddenham says the Bombers could become a second-grade team like Greater Western Sydney if players are suspended.
Thirty-four past-and-present Essendon players received show-cause notices from the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority last week as a result of the Bombers' 2012 supplements program.
While some of those players have retired or moved to other AFL clubs, if suspensions occur it would leave a significant hole in the Bombers' roster.
Des Tuddenham is worried Essendon could become a second-grade team if hit with suspensions by ASADA.
Tuddenham was concerned it would leave his old club uncompetitive, just as Greater Western Sydney has largely been in its first two-and-a-half seasons in the AFL.
"It's just going to make them a second-grade team, they'll have to bring down Greater Western Sydney to fill them in [on what to do] because they won't have players if they're going to get suspended," Tuddenham said. "It's going to be a really big issue."
One option would be to allow Essendon to use non-AFL players from its VFL side.
Fairfax Media understands some of the 19 VFL-listed players believe they may be in line to be called up as replacements at Essendon.
AFL clubs do not have any priority access to players on their VFL list, but Essendon's internal recruiting process dictates any player acquired to play in the second-tier competition must be approved by the AFL club's football department first.
The VFL team is familiar with the club's game plan, allowing for a relatively easy transition if required.
Essendon has 16 players on its AFL senior and rookie lists recruited since 2012, which means they're not subject to the ASADA investigation.
It's believed midfielder David Zaharakis refused injections offered by the club as part of its controversial supplements regime, which would theoretically leave Essendon with 17 currently-listed players who would not have received show-cause notices last Thursday.
"Whether they're allowed to do that [bring in VFL players], but I'm sure [the AFL] will want them to field a side and be competitive," Tuddenham said.
"VFL players, they're just going to be so far behind.
"You take all their players out and then you've got the coaches, and their staff, you've got their doctors, the whole club's at stake right now."
AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan indicated on Monday the AFL had developed contingency plans if a raft of Essendon players are suspended.
- with Daniel Cherny