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Great expectations: Your big improver in 2018

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 15: Jack Steele, Jack Sinclair and Blake Acres of the Saints in action during the St Kilda Saints open training session at the Linen House Centre on November 15, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Michael Dodge/AFL Media)
Can Jack Steele go to the next level in 2018 following an impressive first season at St Kilda?

Charlie Cameron's move to the Brisbane Lions opens the door for talented youngster Wayne Milera to become a regular in the Crows' forward line. Milera – the 11th overall pick in the 2015 NAB AFL Draft – has shown glimpses of brilliance in his 24 games. Milera has the ability to make something out of nothing, can lock the ball in the forward line and also push up on to the wing. Look for the 20-year-old to have a breakout season. Curtly Hampton, 24, is over the ankle injury that cruelled his season and should slot into the Crows' midfield, or fill in at half-back for the injured Brodie Smith. - Lee Gaskin 

Despite missing all of last season (and half of the one before), you can expect big things from Allen Christensennext season. Christensen has had rotten luck ever since Carlton's Andrew Walker cleaned him up – fairly – midway through 2016. There, he dislocated his shoulder, and last year in his only NEAFL match, cracked the plate that was holding it together. The former Cat will be like a new recruit for Chris Fagan. With Tom Rockliff off to Port Adelaide, Christensen will get more time in the midfield to use his polished skills and excellent decision-making – something the Lions can use more of. He's already fit, and although not blessed with blinding speed, has enough to break away and set up teammates. In his 33 games for the Lions, Christensen has averaged almost 20 disposals and a goal a game. - Michael Whiting

The Blues have invested heavily in young forward Harry McKay and they are hoping to reap the rewards in future seasons. The 'Big H' has returned to training looking much stronger as he seeks to add to his two senior games in two seasons at Ikon Park. While injuries have set him back in his AFL career, McKay has shown enough to suggest he can solve Carlton's travails to kick winning scores with his athleticism, skill and goal-sense. Expect plenty of improvement from the Blues' group of talented youngsters, notably Charlie CurnowZac FisherSam Petrevski-Seton and Jacob Weitering, who are expected to become key playmakers. - Howard Kotton 

There are big hopes for Mason Cox to not only establish himself in the Magpies' line-up but become a key figure in what has been a misfiring attack. It's a tall task given the 'American Pie' has been playing the game for just three years and has just 20 AFL games and 27 goals to his name. However, a new three-year contract signalled the Pies' belief in Cox, and coach Nathan Buckley has confirmed the 26-year-old will be given time to develop a ruck/forward partnership with Brodie Grundy, a pairing that worked well in the final-round win over Melbourne. - Ben Collins

Andrew McGrath entered his debut season as Essendon's first No.1 pick, but that pressure seemed to have little impact on the dependable defender, who went on to win the NAB AFL Rising Star. Because of his brilliant first season, expectations will undoubtedly rise even further for McGrath in his second year at the top level. But based upon what he has shown so far, that won't be an issue for the speedy and smart Bomber. He looks likely to spend a lot more time in the midfield next year, where he played the second half of his under-18 season, and where he'll be given the responsibility to get Essendon moving. Alongside the likes of emerging midfielder Darcy Parish and already established gun Zach Merrett, it's a young midfield trio that will go a long way to shaping Essendon's fortunes for many years. - Callum Twomey 

Expect to see more of Andrew McGrath in the middle next season. Picture: AFL Photos

Former Gold Coast star Harley Bennell has hardly played since becoming a Docker two years ago, but he might well have turned the corner. After a horrendous run with calf injuries that threatened his career, Bennell closed out this season with six successive games, the last two at AFL level, suggesting he might have finally overcome his calf curse. As the 25-year-old enters the final year of a three-year contract, Freo will want some return on investment. No one expects him to be Superman next year but a setback-free pre-season might well provide the Dockers with something resembling the quality, if troubled, recruit they snared at the end of 2015. And a fit, disciplined Bennell would do wonders for Ross Lyon's team. - Ben Collins

You get a fairly good indication of how highly a player is rated internally when the coaching staff recalls him for a cut-throat preliminary final after having not played for seven weeks. That is Nakia Cockatoo at Geelong who has all the tools to become a genuine star in the AFL. However, the 21-year-old did not get a chance to showcase his talents enough in 2017 after injuring his hamstring on three separate occasions. Pound for pound, Cockatoo is regarded as one of the strongest players on Geelong's list and his power and speed are evident in his style of play. He has come back to pre-season training in ripping condition and with a plan of making his hamstrings "bulletproof" to further injury. Little snippets of the type of player he could become were apparent last year, but maybe none more so than his sensational three-bounce running goal against Fremantle in round one last season. Cats fans should be excited by what he could bring. - Ben Guthrie

After a horror 2017 season for the club, the Suns need players to stand up for new coach Stuart Dew, and they won't have to look any further than second-year forward Ben Ainsworth. The teenage Victorian taken at No.4 in the 2016 NAB AFL Draft had a terrific debut season after overcoming a quad problem that kept him out for eight weeks. The kid is confident – he's taken Gary Ablett's vacant No.9 jumper – and he has the ability to back it up. With Tom Lynch and Peter Wright as the primary targets, Ainsworth can slip in as the third or fourth (behind Jack Martin) option. He's great overhead for his size, quick at ground level and loves kicking important goals. Ainsworth is driven to succeed and will turn heads next season. - Michael Whiting

Jacob Hopper, the Giants' top pick at the 2015 NAB AFL Draft, has had two years in the competition ruined by injury, illness and bad luck. It started when a freak pool accident left him with facial cuts and delayed his debut until round eight 2016, when he racked up a lazy 32 touches against Gold Coast. A serious back problem, a minor heart operation, a broken finger and an ankle injury followed, but in his 23 games he's been shown to be a brilliant decision-maker in tight, a consistent clearance winner, and a fierce tackler playing as an inside midfielder. If he gets some luck next year, Hopper can become an established star. - Adam Curley 

How do you assess Harry Morrison’s performance in his debut game for the Hawks this year? On the one hand, it was the Luke Hodge/Bob Murphy/Matthew Boyd's testimonial game in round 23 and at times, the lack of intensity reflected that. Nevertheless, Morrison looked really comfortable across half-back, with 21 touches and six marks and he demonstrated a clear ability to read the play properly and run to the right places. The Hawks regarded him as a prime steal with pick No.74 at the 2016 NAB AFL Draft after testing well at the Combine and as recently as last weekend, he was singled out by coach Alastair Clarkson as one of the star performers of the just-concluded New Zealand training camp. He looks noticeably bigger and will be in the selection frame from round one. - Ashley Browne

Jesse Hogan endured one of the most challenging seasons for an individual player in recent memory in 2017. Losing his father to cancer was one thing, but being diagnosed with testicular cancer, and then breaking his collarbone just two weeks after he made his comeback amounted to a lost season for the Demons' spearhead. Ready to put the trauma of last season behind him, Hogan has come back in superb physical condition after an off-season where he fully dedicated himself to his training program. Hogan kicked 44 and 41 goals before his return of 20 in 10 games last year. The 22-year-old's ability to initiate body contact with his opponent, his all-round mobility and power for a young player are all attributes that point to Hogan joining the likes of Josh Kennedy, Lance Franklin and Joe Daniher as the best key forwards in the game. - Ben Guthrie 

Jesse Hogan will hope to rebound from a virtually lost season. Picture: AFL Photos

Luke Davies-Uniacke became North Melbourne's earliest draft pick since 2006 when the Roos snared him at No.4 in this year's NAB AFL Draft. North has lacked class in its on-ball division in recent years, especially since the departures of Brent Harvey, Daniel Wells and Nick Dal Santo. Davies Uniacke should help address that immediately. The former Dandenong Stingray is a prolific ball-winner at stoppages, but also has a good burst of speed that makes him dangerous in open space. A strong overhead mark, Davies-Uniacke can have an impact resting in attack, while at 187cm and 85kg he appears physically ready to play senior football from round one next year. The Kangaroos also have high hopes for classy second-year forward Jy Simpkin, who showed exciting glimpses in his debut season despite battling shoulder injuries. - Nick Bowen   

Dougal Howard was a revelation for the Power in their run to the finals. A ruckman who can also play forward, Howard was moved to the backline with great success. His aggression and willingness to attack the ball makes the 21-year-old a perfect fit as a key defender. Howard might not be in the Power's best 22 at the start of the season, but it's going to be tough to keep him out of the picture. The Power will also be expecting Sam Powell-Pepper to build on his outstanding rookie season. Powell-Pepper looked right at home at the elite level with his physical approach to the game. - Lee Gaskin 

Daniel Rioli is recovering from a broken left foot suffered in the Grand Final and looks unlikely to play round one, paving the way for draftee Jack Higgins to make an early debut. Higgins slid to pick No.17 because he stands only 178cm, isn't lightening quick and some recruiters worry he might not have much improvement left in him. However, Higgins won the Morrish Medal as the TAC Cup best and fairest for a reason. He marks well, has great game sense and knows how to kick a goal, and Higgins' insatiable appetite for hard work will endear him to Tigers coach Damien Hardwick. - Dinny Navaratnam

A few Saints are ready to make a big impact and Jack Steele might be the pick of them. The 22-year-old has many of the important traits modern midfielders need: he has size (187cm), is a fierce tackler (No.2 in the AFL in tackles per game in 2017) and is a good ball user. Steele's running needs to improve but seeing he has been fit this pre-season, rather than in rehab for a fractured left foot as he was 12 months ago, the former Giant is well placed to take his game to the next level. He was relentless in St Kilda's tight win over West Coast in round 20, racking up 26 disposals, 20 contested possessions, 12 tackles, 10 clearances and booting two goals in a performance that showed he could dominate games. - Dinny Navaratnam 

Just as he followed fellow Swans academy graduate Isaac Heeney's path to the AFL, a move to the midfield will elevate Callum Mills' standing in the game. Heeney showed his prodigious talent as a forward, but in late 2016 and last season, it was his move to the wing and onball where he really impacted games. Mills has been outstanding in his first two seasons across half-back, but it's in the midfield where his vision, courage and cool head will see him thrive in 2018. With guns such as Josh Kennedy, Luke Parker, Dan Hannebery and Heeney around him, the 2016 NAB AFL Rising Star winner will raise the standards of an already elite midfield. - Adam Curley 

Sure, Liam Duggan had only 10 disposals in each of his two finals, including just three kicks in the GWS loss. But the Victorian overall enjoyed an impressive 2017 campaign in his move to half-back, posting career highs in games (20), disposals (16.6), rebound 50s (2.4) and metres gained (283.2). Duggan's creative left foot is a genuine weapon. The 21-year-old, considered a future leader, is equally damaging delivering penetrating passes, putting the ball into teammates' space or finishing in front of goal. Duggan's tackle numbers won't blow you away, but he makes them stick and has become a solid one-on-one defender. There will be increased midfield opportunities in 2018, so it will be interesting to see where Adam Simpson thinks he best serves the team. - Marc McGowan 

Liam Duggan was impressive in 2017 after a move to half-back. Picture: Getty images

He only played two AFL games in his first season at the Kennel, but beanpole ruckman Tim English showed enough to get Dogs fans excited about his potential. He had off-season hip surgery, but is expected to graduate from his modified training load before Christmas. His excellent rucking skills along with his kicking ability and ground work will only be enhanced by a summer in the gym, and with a fresh contract inked that will keep him at the club until at least 2020, there's plenty of reason to be bullish about the young West Australian. Key defender Marcus Adams will be aiming for a big year after another season ended early because of a foot injury, having worked his way back to full training. And Josh Schache will be hoping his return to his home state results in a more stable base from which to launch his best football, with the former No.2 draft pick already impressing on the track alongside fellow big man Tom Boyd- Jennifer Phelan

The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the AFL or its clubs