If, as Alastair Clarkson has suggested, teams have a more attacking bent this season, having focused more on their defensive mantra in recent years, supporters will undoubtedly hope that means forwards will be encouraged to do what they do best.
Extrapolated to where this has the greatest impact, on the scoreboard, that should mean there will be more goals kicked, with elite forwards prospering from a more attacking style up the field.
But this raises the question of whether there are enough elite forwards to capitalise, as classified by the AFL's statisticians, Champion Data.
According to last year's figures, 11 teams did not boast a player who met elite classification as a forward. An elite player falls in the top 10 per cent for his position.
This annual classification is always debatable. For instance, Collingwood's Travis Cloke was not considered elite, being deemed only an above-average player last season. But as one club football department figure said, the All-Australian would “walk into any team, as simple as that”.
Cloke was the leading target inside 50 throughout the 2013 season, taking 25 more marks than any other player. He finished with 68 goals, and was runner-up in the Coleman Medal behind Jarryd Roughead. But as Fairfax Media pointed out last month, his inability to consistently convert in front of goal has dented his value.
In terms of goalkicking accuracy, Cloke finished with 68.51, at 57.1 per cent accuracy. This compares with Hawthorn's Roughead, who finished the year with 72.34 (67.9 per cent). Greater Western Sydney's Jeremy Cameron, with 62.27, was even better at 69.7 per cent.
Cameron, the emerging young superstar, was also a shock omission from the elite bracket, deemed only an average performer despite his All-Australian selection. Champion Data pointed out that his body “is still developing and he will become an even more dominant forward when he gets better at one-on-one contests”, having won only 19 per cent – the fourth-lowest percentage of the top 50 forwards.
With this year's No. 1 pick Tom Boyd and a fit Jonathon Patton working alongside him, Cameron has every chance of becoming elite this season.
If Essendon is to emerge as a premiership threat under Mark Thompson and end its recent history of struggling late in the season, the Bombers will probably need at least a couple of above average forwards. They did not have an elite forward last season, with only medium-tall Jason Winderlich considered above average. Former Cat Paul Chapman, considered above average, will also help should he remain fit.
Michael Hurley was deemed average, and will switch to defence this season, having admitted he was uncomfortable leading for the ball as a forward. Swingman Jake Carlisle, impressive in his stints forward last season, is tipped to spend considerable time inside attacking 50. Then, there is the lanky Joe Daniher, an emerging superstar.
Hurley likes what the Bombers will offer up forward. “Hopefully big Joe can snag a few. Jason Winderlich has been flying on the [training] track along with 'Chappy',” he said. “Those two will be a good avenue towards goal. And it wouldn't surprise me if big Jakey Carlisle plays forward and kicks a few snags as well. It's a different sort of set-up, but pretty exciting.”
It wouldn't surprise me if big Jakey Carlisle plays forward and kicks a few snags.
By comparison, premier Hawthorn and grand finalist Fremantle had three elite forwards apiece. But having an elite forward doesn't necessarily guarantee success, depending on a club's interpretation of what success is.
Preliminary finalist Sydney has two elite forwards – superstar recruit Lance Franklin and veteran Adam Goodes – but the latter was not seen after round 13 last year because of injury.
Geelong, also a preliminary finalist, did not have an elite forward last year, with the zippy Steven Motlop the highest ranked, as above average. Tom Hawkins and Nathan Vardy were average but, as is the case with Cloke, each would find a spot in just about every rival side.
At Carlton, hopes of kicking a big score would again appear to lay with veteran forward Jarrad Waite. He was considered above average last season, despite managing only 14 games, but has been tipped by Champion Data to slip this season. So important was Waite that he contributed to 23 per cent of scores – ranked second at the club behind Chris Judd – despite being moved into defence against Richmond and Essendon late in the campaign. Waite returned to the forward line for the finals.
Lachie Henderson endured a strong year at either end of the ground and was the only player in the league to defend 50 one-on-one contests and be an attacking target on 50 occasions.
Carlton director of coaching Robert Wiley said coach Mick Malthouse would adopt a “horses for courses” approach with the pair.
“He [Henderson] proved last year that he is the modern-day swingman and he can play at both ends, and very successfully,” Wiley said. “I think it's horses for courses. Mick really coaches that way. He likes to see the opposition and where they are vulnerable.
“Jarrad Waite kicked seven goals in the one game [against Essendon], a couple of weeks later he was playing down back. The most important thing is they know their roles, they can play at both ends.”
On paper at least, the Demons have a forward line that could torment many a rival. Only Jeremy Howe was considered above average last season but a fit Mitch Clark has the ability to leap into that category. With Chris Dawes and rookie Jesse Hogan also roaming inside 50, the Demons will hope at least one marking tall emerges as a consistent threat.
Clark hopes the Demons forwards can trouble rivals with their flexibility. “I have got no doubt that we can all work together and hopefully cause some headaches,” he said.
“I am sure I will play different roles at different times and so will the other guys. I think that's a good thing about the forward line – we are all pretty flexible and can play different roles.”
According to Champion Data, Gold Coast did not have one elite forward – but that can be misleading. Gary Ablett, naturally, was considered elite but he was classified as a midfielder. But he is also an elite forward, and said over summer he would spend more time inside the attacking 50 this season, adding greater polish to an emerging set-up.
Richmond had four above-average forwards but, really, that could be considered five when skipper Trent Cotchin is shifted out of the middle.
The Western Bulldogs, surprisingly, had four above-average forwards and would appear to be even more potent this year with the inclusion of Stewart Crameri. But they will need Shaun Higgins and Jarrad Grant, recovering from injury, to regain their fitness early in the new campaign.
North Melbourne had key tall Drew Petrie as an elite target, with coach Brad Scott this week adding some weight to Clarkson's prediction, declaring the Kangaroos would maintain their attacking backbone after a season in which defensive lapses cost the team a series of victories.
Forward stocks: Club by club (Based on 2013 season rankings)
Elite: Patrick Dangerfield (mid/forward)
Above average: Taylor Walker, Tom Lynch, Eddie Betts
Top 5 goalkickers in 2013: T Lynch 33, P Dangerfield 31, J Jenkins 24, R Douglas 20, A Otten 15
Above average: Brent Staker
Top 5 goalkickers in 2013: J Brown 28, D Zorko 26, J Green 24, B Staker 21, A McGrath 19
Above average: Lachie Henderson, Jarrad Waite, Jeff Garlett
Top 5 goalkickers in 2013: J Garlett 43, E Betts 27, J Waite 27, L Henderson 26, C Yarran 26
Above average: Travis Cloke
Top 5 goalkickers in 2013: T Cloke 68, J Elliott 30, B Reid 25, D Swan 21, S Sidebottom 19
Above average: Paul Chapman, Jason Winderlich
Top 5 goalkickers in 2013: S Crameri 30, T Bellchambers 28, M Hurley 24, A Davey 19, J Winderlich 17
Elite: Matthew Pavlich, Chris Mayne, Michael Walters
Above average: Hayden Ballantyne
Top 5 goalkickers in 2013: M Walters 46, C Mayne 37, H Ballantyne 34, M Pavlich 25, N Fyfe 18
Above average: Steven Motlop
Top 5 goalkickers in 2013: T Hawkins 49, S Motlop 44, J Podsiadly 33, J Selwood 30, S Johnson 23, A Christensen 23
Above average: none
Top 5 goalkickers in 2013: G Ablett 28, A Hall 24, C Brown 23, H Bennell 19, C Dixon 19
Greater Western Sydney
Above average: none
Top 5 goalkickers in 2013: J Cameron 62, D Smith 16, J Giles 14, S O'hAilpin 13, C Ward 11, D Shiel 11, T Scully 11
Elite: Jarryd Roughead, Cyril Rioli, Jack Gunston
Above average: Luke Breust, Paul Puopolo
Top 5 goalkickers in 2013: J Roughead 72, L Franklin 60, J Gunston 46, L Breust 40, D Hale 20
Above average: Jeremy Howe
Top 5 goalkickers in 2013: J Howe 28, J Watts 22, A Davey 15, J Fitzpatrick 15, S Byrnes 12, C Dawes 12
Elite: Drew Petrie
Above average: Brent Harvey (mid-forward), Lindsay Thomas
Top 5 goalkickers in 2013: L Thomas 53, D Petrie 48, A Black 33, D Wells 25, J Ziebell 20, R Bastinac 20
Elite: Angus Monfries
Above average: Justin Westhoff, Chad Wingard, Jay Schulz
Top 5 goalkickers in 2013: J Schulz 49, C Wingard 43, A Monfries 39, J Westhoff 31, T Boak 20
Above average: Dustin Martin (mid-forward), Jack Riewoldt, Aaron Edwards, Ty Vickery
Top 5 goalkickers in 2013: J Riewoldt 58, T Vickery 27, D Martin 23, J King 21, L McGuane 20
Elite: Nick Riewoldt
Above average: none
Top 5 goalkickers in 2013: N Riewoldt 50, S Milne 28, A Saad 17, T Lee 17, L Montagna 16, J Steven 16
Elite: Lance Franklin, Adam Goodes
Above average: Kurt Tippett
Top 5 goalkickers in 2013: K Tippett 35, B McGlynn 30, J Bolton 29, M Pyke 28, K Jack 24
Above average: Josh Kennedy, Mark LeCras, Jack Darling
Top 5 goalkickers in 2013: J Kennedy 60, J Darling 42, M LeCras 30, J Hill 28, B Dalziell 15
Above average: Luke Dahlhaus, Stewart Crameri, Shaun Higgins, Daniel Giansiracusa, Jarrad Grant
Top 5 goalkickers in 2013: D Giansiracusa 36, L Dahlhaus 28, T Dickson 22, L Jones 22, A Cooney 19
Source: Champion Data 2014 AFL prospectus