By Jake Bowtell
First thoughts from fantasy land…
As an Australian who has become absolutely besotted with (read disgustingly addicted to) the NFL in the last five years, I have developed a greater appreciation for my native code of football, and the athletes who play it. Now comprising both professional Men’s and Women’s Leagues, the AFL continues to flourish and provide the backbone of Australia’s sporting calendar (no matter what those whingeing cricket-heads might say).
For the uninitiated, true Australian Rules Football (or Footy, as it’s mostly known), is not that head-crashing, pile-driving, throw it sideways and backwards thing known as rugby. No, Australian football is a fast-paced, end to end kickathon, with far more in common with Gaelic football than rugby. It is played mostly at breakneck speed, by men and women wearing no padding, no helmets, sprinting and leaping around a gigantic oval field that varies in length from 135 – 185 metres long and 110 – 155 metres wide. Scoring is done by kicking the ball through the middle pair of four goal tall goalposts placed at either end of the field. A miss through the left or right pairs of posts results in a “behind”. A goal is worth 6 points, a behind is worth 1.
The game is played with full contact, though the usual types of rules like not pushing a player in the back, not punching someone in the face, not chopping their arms when they go to take a mark (catch), all apply.
Watching our AFL players, I marvel at their athleticism, their speed and agility, their willingness to throw themselves, un-padded, into a tackle, to lay massive hits, to climb into the air and pull down a screamer (again, I will have to address Australian slang at some point). And as a multi-sport fan, I begin to fantasise about NFL scouts discovering the versatility of our athletes, and a new wave of Australians filling positional needs on future NFL rosters.
With a new season of Women’s footy underway, and the 2021 Men’s season under two weeks away, I thought it was high time I took a loot at scouting which players from the Men’s competition I feel could have translatable skills to the American game. I invite you to come with me, into the deepest reaches of my mind.
CHARLIE DIXON – TE
Size: 6”5, 235 lbs
Team: Port Adelaide Power
Charlie Dixon fits the a hybrid TE/Big bodied WR role. His vertical leap at the ball is spectacular, and his hands stick catches like glue. A player who began his career with the expansion Gold Coast Suns, has established himself as one of the most imposing full-forwards in the game at the Port Adelaide Power. In terms of an AFL to NFL transition, I would envisage Dixon being used as a contested catch, red-zone weapon. He’s going to be able to high point the ball with that leap of his, or use his strong frame to protect his space on a curl route. Don’t envisage Charlie streaking down the sideline on a go ball, but do imagine him breaking for the corner and catching the ball at full extension at the back of the end zone over the flailing hands of a defender. Do imagine him being the reliable set of hands in a short yardage situation where you have to have a catch to keep the chains moving but your running game has been stymied. Another big tick for Charlie is his surprising athleticism for a guy of his height, and his willingness to fight and scrap. Expect him to happily get in line and block in the run game, because nothing would please him more than cracking helmets with the man across from him. Plus, he has exceptional TE styling. Beard? Check. Tattoos? Check. Bulging, vein-riddled biceps? Check.
NIC NAITANUI – TE
Size: 6”8, 242 lbs
Team: West Coast Eagles
Nic Naitanui is one of the freakiest combinations of physicality, athleticism, and ball skill in the AFL. While his kicking and distribution of the ball is obviously a non-factor in the American game, big Nic has more than a few other skills to bring to the party. For one, the guy is a monster even before you put him through the strength and conditioning of the NFL. He already measures in at 6 ft 8, and weighs 242 lbs. Not only is he a physical powerhouse, but he combines that size and reach with an incredible vertical leap that seems to end with him plucking the football down out of the heavens. I see him as a Mo Alie-Cox type prospect, a red-zone destroyer like we spoke about with Charlie Dixon, but with more diversity in his usage. Unlike Dixon, Naitanui has the sort of speed and wiggle to be a danger running a broader array of routes, and would provide a particularly potent vertical threat. Sideline jump balls, Posts, Corners, Sluggos, flat out Go Routes, Naitanui’s skillset of size and surprising speed could have cornerbacks sweating for days.
ANTHONY MCDONALD-TIPUNGWUTI – DB
Size: 5”6, 169 lbs
Team: Essendon Bombers
McDonald-Tipungwuti falls into the category of undersized guys who might need to add a few extra pounds to keep up with the bash and crash of the NFL. But the NFL is full of undersized and over-looked battlers who bring more to the table than just their measurable physicality. McDonald-Tipungwuti would be one of those guys. The Bombers midfielder possesses enough small-space agility that he could potentially have been placed as a running back or wide receiver, you’d be hard-pressed to tackle him in a phone booth, but what I love most about McDonald-Tipungwuti is his closing speed and vicious, leopard-like tackling ability. This guy is a predator to the ball-carrier, and I could see him being used in a number of ways as a bit of a hybrid DB. While lacking the height to be a genuine linebacker, I would envisage McDonald-Tipungwuti being a serviceable cover corner, while doubling as a blitzing weapon who could both attack the quarterback and assault the run.
JACK GUNSTON – WR
Size: 6”3, 178 lbs
Team: Hawthorn Hawks
When imagining Hawthorn forward Jack Gunston as a WR threat in the NFL, don’t assess him against athletic gods like DeAndre Hopkins or Stefon Diggs. Think of Gunston as a no-nonsense route running technician with a workmanlike ethic to do his job to an elite level and rack up a ton of reliable receptions per game. One of the standouts of Gunston’s game for the Hawks across a lengthy career in a league full of bigger, faster, stronger, more dynamic goalkickers, is his ability to find space. He is adept at leading his run to the open spots in a defense, and would be an exceptionally useful weapon to an NFL team against teams running zone coverages. He is a clean catch of the ball, whether catching with hands extended, or bringing the ball to his chest, and is sneakily imaginative, with the ability to improvise and think his way out of trouble. Would need to add a little weight to his frame, but that is the case for a lot of the AFL to NFL guys, as the physique required for each game is slightly different.
DUSTIN MARTIN – RB
Size: 6”1, 189 lbs
Team: Richmond Tigers
While Martin is an elite distributor of the ball for the Tigers, and one of the sharpest goal creators in the AFL, I will focus on his “raging bull” attitude toward breaking tackles and fending off opponents. Martin’s stiff-arm (or “don’t argue” in AFL parlance) is league-renowned, and would make an instant translation into the NFL. With his willingness to get physical and take on an opponent, Dusty could make a logical step into the RB position in the American game. Given his good hands, and open space speed, I could see Martin being a back who could also be featured in the passing game. He is one of the greatest one on one contested catch players in the AFL, and would relish the challenge of going head to head with a cornerback. Don’t think Christian McCaffrey, think a lighter, more agile, Derrick Henry. Also consider Martin’s pedigree of success. He is a three-time Premiership Star in the last 4 seasons, with multiple Grand Final MVP Awards. This is a guy who understands how successful organisations win, and that mentality is something that is applicable even across different codes.
GARY ROHAN – LB
Size: 6”1, 189 lbs
Team: Geelong Cats
It would be a crime for me to do an AFL to NFL player analysis and not include a player from the team I support, but thankfully Gary Rohan makes it possible for me to both fulfil my Geelong Cats bias and make another accurate selection. Rohan is one of the fastest players in the AFL, with an underrated set of hands for the catch, but I want to utilise his pressure instincts in the American format. Rohan’s speed and aggression to the ball carrier is absolutely elite, as indicated in his highlight reels, frequently chasing players down from behind and tackling with top-class ferocity. It is not just his first effort that impresses me, it is his willingness to make second and third efforts across the ground. It is not uncommon to see Rohan lay a tackle, then be the man that runs twenty or thirty metres to make a second tackle down the field. With an NFL field being a narrower place for an offense to operate, I feel like Gary Rohan would rapidly become a sideline to sideline monster, feared by RBs and WRs alike, with the ability to bring a blitz to sweeten the deal. With his ability to take contested catches in the air, don’t be surprised if he would come down with a few sneaky interceptions as well.
JEREMY HOWE – S
Size: 6”2, 189lbs
Team: Collingwood Magpies
Jeremy Howe catches the ball. He catches the ball perhaps more spectacularly than any other player in the Australian game, at full stretch, spring-boarding into the clouds with one of the more remarkable vertical leaps in the AFL. He has sticky hands, even at “high altitude” and has brought down some of the more remarkable grabs seen on the field in the last decade. But setting up his physical abilities for success is his ability to read and diagnose the flow of play ahead of him, which allows him to be one of the best intercept defenders in the league. This quality alone makes him an easy AFL to NFL candidate for me, at the position of Safety. Howe is not going to bring pressure to the QB like a Jamal Adams type, he is not going to feature in any blitz packages, but he will float around the back field and make any QB think twice before throwing deep to his area of the field. Think Minkah Fitzpatrick’s 2019 season for the Steelers as an example of what this Magpie would bring to his NFL team.
Final thoughts from fantasy land…
While elite AFL athletes making the cross to have a crack at the NFL is an unlikely “fantasy land” scenario, it’s still a fascinating topic of discussion for an NFL outsider like me who would love to see NFL exposure for more Aussie athletes beyond our highly productive Punt Industrial Complex. The AFL frequently produces some remarkable footballers, and I believe even more so than rugby (which doesn’t feature the high volume of vertical catching or intercept play of the AFL), NFL or College scouts should be casting an eye Down Under to identify Aussies who could fit the positional descriptions for a variety of spots on a roster.
And even if you remain unconvinced that any of our Aussie exports will end up frequenting more spots on College and NFL rosters, I would implore you to take a look at the Australian game. It is a league that we are proud of, and welcome new fans to take part in. Our season runs across the NFL off-season, and with 18 teams to choose from in the Men’s competition, and 14 in the Women’s league, there’s no shortage of franchises to root for or games to consume. So why not treat yourself?
After all, It’s A Football World… we’re all just passing through.
For those interested to have a look at the Aussie game, several weeks of the Women’s competition remain, including playoffs, and can be streamed Live and Free from the AFLW website and phone App (both available in the US). The Men’s season begins on Thursday 18th of March with the Richmond Tigers taking on the Carlton Blues, and will run through to Grand Final day in late September. Men’s games are available on select US channels or via subscription at https://www.watchafl.com.au/.
If you like what you’ve read here, why not come on over and have a listen to The Chaps Chat Cats (Facebook)! A podcast where Jake, Sambo and Johnny, three diehard Geelong Cats fans, discuss all of the ups and downs of the Greatest Team of All! There’s footy analysis, plenty of bullshit and banter, and 100% certified Aussie accents.
Feature Photo: austadiums.com