Who is primed for a big 2023?
In every AFL season, there is a group of players who announce themselves as bonafide stars of the competition.
Looking through the summer months with a keen eye, some players have their sights set on the upcoming season.
Spending time in the gym and on the track, clubs will be pleased with how their men have prepared for 2023.
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However, some look to be more determined to stake their claims on the league, whether it be for redeeming purposes or declaring their talent as youngsters.
Albeit near impossible to decide who, The Sporting News has tasked themselves with the difficult job in identifying those ready to take the next step toward stardom or back there.
Taking you through who’s set for a massive year, raising their game – and their teams’ – to new heights, here are five players to keep an eye out for (in no particular order):
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AFL 2023 season breakout players
Finn Callaghan (GWS)
GWS fans should be bullish by how good Callaghan can be in 2023 and beyond.
Taken with pick three in the 2021 draft, Callaghan’s expectations were high by what he should be able to produce at the elite level.
A lethal left-foot kick, the 192cm midfielder was someone the Giants targeted immediately to join the club but has unfortunately not shown his real talent.
Rattled by injuries in his debut season, he was limited to five appearances within the first half of 2022.
However, following an interrupted off-season that had flagged rival club’s interest, Callaghan put his head down and his work has showed in the match simulations and practice games leading into the 2023 season.
Fresh off denying advances from St Kilda and inking a new two-year deal at GWS, the 19-year-old was one off the best in the intra-club match, showcasing his speed and elite ball use.
In the official audition for 2023, the Giants faced Gold Coast and Callaghan was once again named in the best.
Year two looks set to be a big one for Finn Callaghan ???? pic.twitter.com/BxVrogVhJL
— AFL (@AFL) March 4, 2023
The youngster gathered 22 disposals and slotted two goals, forcing the AFL world to recognise his relatively unseen brilliance.
So much so, former recruiter Matt Rendell believes Callaghan could topple Rising Star favourite and 2022’s pick two Will Ashcroft in the count as the game’s best young player.
“(Will Ashcroft) is favourite, but is he going to play every game and is he going to get a real good go in the midfield?’,” Rendell said on SEN.
“I’ve tipped a few people into a bloke that I think is a massive chance, Finn Callaghan at GWS.
“With Taranto and Hopper out, he’s going to get a lot of game time and I’m telling you he’s a star.
“He was pick No. 3 in the (2021) draft and he just re-signed with them.
“If I’m having a little dabble, I’m getting on Finn Callaghan for the Rising Star.”
Callaghan is primed for more midfield minutes – where he does his best work – and will benefit from the experience of Josh Kelly and Stephen Coniglio around him.
MORE: Every AFL team’s predicted round one line-up
Kysaiah Pickett (MELB)
Melbourne are confident that they will be able to re-sign Pickett for 2024 onwards despite rival interest.
And for their sake, let’s hope that confidence translates to a signature, otherwise the club will be kicking themselves for a long time if he leaves.
But before any of that, Pickett is looking primed for a massive 2023, with reports indicating a move into the midfield on the cards.
In the past two years, the pick 12 from the 2019 draft has slotted 81 goals (40 and 41) as a genuine small forward.
Looking quicker and stronger, Pickett’s trajectory from a good player to stardom is well and truly on its way and there’s a case for it being this year.
Let’s compare to some of the stars.
Two of the most exciting and best small forwards in recent times – Eddie Betts and Charlie Cameron – took seven and six years respectively to kick 50 majors in a season.
Cyril Rioli never reached that mark, although we know his impact was more than his own individual scoring.
An underrated Luke Breust reached the impressive feat in his fourth season, while Sydney’s Tom Papley has hovered around the half century but never ticked over.
Pickett’s freakish ability to consistently find the ball in dangerous positions is likened too many of the greats before him and could take him to such heights.
A 50-goal season from a small forward is worth its weight in gold and is something the Demon could achieve in 2023.
Not too mention the added flexibility of going into the midfield, causing chaos and spitting out into the forward 50, losing his opponent and becoming dangerous once more.
Pickett is a massive watch this space.
James Worpel (HAW)
Safe to say James Worpel’s 2022 season was utterly disappointing to watch.
Flagged as one of the game’s up-and-coming midfielders, the Hawthorn youngster has all the attributes to contend with some of the league’s best players.
However, through a lack of form and injury, Worpel was unable to get himself going last year and putting doubt over whether he can return to his 2019 Peter Crimmins Medalist form.
But, as one season ends, a new one dawns and so does a fresh start.
Following the departures of veterans Tom Mitchell (Collingwood) and Jaeger O’Meara (Fremantle), a huge vacancy has opened up at the Hawks and its screaming out for someone to command the centre position.
Worpel is more than capable of stepping up into the role and his pre-season suggests he might do just that.
The 24-year-old has rarely put a foot wrong of the summer months and is ready to claim back the primary midfield role.
Hawks GM of Football Rob McCartney is a big believer in Worpel returning to what the club knows he can be, saying his hard work is looking like paying off.
“What we also liked about the weekend was that Worpel re-announced to a few, ‘hey, don’t forget me either. I’ve just turned 24, I’ve played 79 games of footy but I’m looking forward to playing my best footy in the next 100 games’,” McCartney said on SEN.
“He worked exceptionally hard, he’s probably one of our hardest trainers, our playing group acknowledge that when they talk about standards within the group, he’s a standard setter in terms of his work ethic.
“When form alludes you for a little while you do have some self-doubt, but he’s been able to work through that and find the form that made him a player for us in that season he won the (Peter) Crimmins Medal.”
Worpel’s output in the practice match against Collingwood was simply outstanding, collecting 30 disposals as a genuine midfielder and was more than comfortable as the Hawks’ number one man.
Although their immediate future will likely see some pain, Hawthorn fans should sleep easy knowing there’s plenty of talent on that list and Worpel is one of them.
Brodie Grundy (MELB)
A seasoned veteran like Brodie Grundy doesn’t necessarily fall under the category as potentially having a breakout year like some of the younger players but he is destined for great things in 2023.
Following an emotional yet amicable break-up with former team Collingwood, Grundy joined forces with Melbourne and champion ruckman Max Gawn as alarm bells started ringing for opposition clubs.
A dual All-Australian, the 28-year-old is still capable of reaching incredible heights despite his PCL injury that kept him to six games last year.
In 2018-2019, Grundy was recognised as the game’s best big man, due to his ability to follow up from ruck contests and work his opponents over.
Since joining the Demons, he has been working on his forward craft, which was on show in the practice match against Richmond, kicking three goals.
Good luck stopping these two!
Max Gawn and Brodie Grundy looked formidable against the Tigers. pic.twitter.com/RZ7qoVVrbG
— AFL (@AFL) March 6, 2023
As we know, AFL players nowadays must have more than one string to their bow and the thought that Grundy can effectively play in the forward 50 is scary to think.
Adding forward craft to his already impressive rucking prowess only strengthens the case for the former Pies’ 2023 season and what he can produce.
Collingwood felt moving on Grundy was the best decision for the club, but you know for a fact that alone will provide him with enough motivation to prove them wrong.
The new Demon would be keen to return to doing what he does best, only in navy blue and red this time.
Darcy Fogarty (ADE)
The time has come for Darcy Fogarty.
The full forward has taken his time to develop but if the back end of last year is anything to go by, 2023 is his season.
Following form issues at the beginning of 2022, Fogarty was in-and-out of the side and was struggling to cement his spot as doubt started to build.
However, he responded in fine fashion, kicking 31 goals in the last 12 games of the season.
Fogarty’s talent was on full display and Adelaide fans started to lick their lips about how good he can become.
Could Darcy Fogarty win the Coleman this year? ???? pic.twitter.com/SbHxgwf2WF
— Sportsday (@SENSportsday) March 7, 2023
Built like a traditional forward, not many defenders can go with the sheer size and strength of the 23-year-old while his speed catches most off guard.
Coming into 2023, coach Matthew Nicks had massive wraps on Fogarty, admitting he has figured out how to balance being a professional athlete better this off-season.
“He has now put his head down, gone to work, and he has got genuine talent,” Nicks told AFL.com.au.
“His game has gone to another level, and he’s the reason that has happened.
“He’s got some great support around him. James Rahilly is our forwards coach and he’s done some fantastic work with him.
“Just believing in himself and being positive about the contribution he was making to the team. He really exploded after doing some work and it’s a credit to him.
“He’s matured even more off the field (and) stepped up now. He wants to have input, he wants to share ideas and thoughts, and he’s got a really good footy brain.”
Taylor Walker has held the mantle as the Crows’ key forward for well over a decade but the time could be to pass the baton.
All of Adelaide are now waiting. It’s up to you Fogarty.