Pass or fail: Every club's make or break for season 2023

After a long offseason, another premiership campaign is upon us. Our ESPN football writers have surveyed the field and given their pass marks for each club ahead of season 2023.


2023 pass mark: Find a reliable key forward to partner, then replace, Taylor Walker

Despite going 3-1 in the final month of last season and signing the exciting Izak Rankine, there still won't be many who expect the Crows to play finals in 2023. So what's the next logical target? Developing a key forward.

The most likely candidate has to be Darcy Fogarty, who finished second in the club's goalkicking last year with 33 majors. He's still just 23 years of age, is a great contested mark and in the argument for best set shot finisher in the entire league. He's played 17 games of each of the last two seasons, and could be one to take a significant step this year.

Or perhaps it could be Riley Thilthorpe. The young Crow burst onto the scene with a bag of five goals in his debut, but has struggled to string games together and for similar output ever since. In fact, he's only added 21 goals from the next 24 games.

With Walker in career-best form, Rankine and the highly-touted Josh Rachele, the Crows should have solid to strong forward line production this year.


2023 pass mark: Make the Grand Final

It might seem harsh, given the Lions have been one of the competition's best sides over the last few seasons, but Chris Fagan is a man under enormous pressure heading into 2023.

Last year, Brisbane won an epic elimination final against Richmond before upsetting reigning premier Melbourne in the semifinals. But everyone will remember the smashing Geelong handed them in their preliminary final.

The addition of Josh Dunkley is huge. The former Bulldog is a top line midfielder who not only wins ball and clearances, but works both ways and hits the scoreboard. The ever-reliable Jack Gunston provides another forward option. And then there's Will Ashcroft, the No. 2 pick in the draft who enters the league with enormous raps and is expected to slot straight into the midfield.

There's no excuses for Brisbane this year. Anything short of reaching the last game of the season will feel like another disappointment.


2023 pass mark: Make finals

Remember, this is a pass mark, not what should be expected. The Blues should be aiming for a top four finish this year and really need to win a final, but considering the club hasn't played in September since 2013, just making the top eight would please fans.

Michael Voss' side was well on track to get there last season. Carlton started the season 8-2 yet a four-game losing streak to end the home and away season, including heartbreaking last-gasp losses to Melbourne and Collingwood in the final two games, saw them drop out of finals contention at the eleventh hour.

The Blues have the reigning Brownlow medallist in skipper Patrick Cripps, as well as the last two Coleman Medal winners, Harry McKay and Charlie Curnow. Throw in an All-Australian calibre defender with Jacob Weitering, one of the league's top young guns in Sam Walsh and last year's recruit of the year, George Hewett. Surely the finals drought ends in 2023. Surely!


2023 pass mark: Avoid a Hawthorn-like collapse

Remember the 2018 Hawks? Nobody ever believed they were that good despite finishing top four. The sentiment was promptly justified with a straight sets exit. The following year, Alastair Clarkson's side went 11-11 and missed finals. The next year, 5-12.

We're not suggesting the Magpies are going to fall off the cliff but surely the close game luck can't continue. In last year's home and away season, Collingwood went an insane 9-1 in games decided by nine or fewer points. The 2018 Hawks were 5-1 in those games.

Craig McRae's side will also have a significantly tougher draw in 2023, courtesy of the top four finish, as well as a target on their back. Assuming Collingwood will cruise back into the finals, and potentially with the double chance, mightn't be the smartest idea just yet.


2023 pass mark: Find a defensive edge

It'd be easy to throw the usual taunt at the Bombers about winning a first final since 2004, but we may need to be more realistic. Are expectations on new coach Brad Scott (after Ben Rutten was dumped late last year) to be as high in his first year as they were on Essendon's arch-rivals Carlton last year after they did the same thing in dumping an underperforming coach? Is this a squad that has finals aspirations in 2023?

The reality is they had the third worst percentage last year behind dismal North Melbourne and West Coast teams, and were pretty easy to score against (ranked 16th for defending the opposition from scoring once they had the ball and 18th for pressure applied). If Scott can tighten the screws when the Bombers don't have the ball and jag a couple more wins than last season, Bombers fans will walk away pleased.


2023 pass mark: Finish in the top four

Lofty? Yes, but a top-four result for the Dockers in 2023 would mean they've eclipsed last year's high water mark of fifth - and we want to see continued improvement from this group.

Sure, a couple of best 22 pieces left (in Rory Lobb, Blake Acres, and Griffin Logue), but they gained the best young ruck prospect in the game in Luke Jackson, and a veteran midfield presence in Jaeger O'Meara. You'd hate for last year's fifth place finish to be the ceiling for this group, so top four should undoubtedly be the aim.

The tough part about this for Justin Longmuir's group is they'll face a 'tougher draw' having finished in the top third of the ladder last season, which means a couple of tough return games against Brisbane, Sydney, Geelong, and a Bulldogs side expected to improve.


2023 pass mark: Must make a prelim

Have the Cats become better this offseason? Yes, Joel Selwood retired, but early indications after watching the Cats' practice matches has us thinking back-to-back. Max Holmes is stepping up well, Sam De Koning doesn't look like slowing down in becoming one of the best key backs in the league, and the additions of Tanner Bruhn, Jack Bowes, and Ollie Henry have the Cats looking to the future.

With other key pieces -- such as new skipper Patrick Dangerfield, Tom Stewart, Jeremy Cameron, Tom Hawkins, and others -- still looking like they'll contribute for another year, Geelong should be aiming for another flag, but a pass mark? Surely they make the final four.

Gold Coast

2023 pass mark: Play finals

Surely this is the year Gold Coast make finals! The Suns have been around so long that it now seems weird to call them an 'expansion side', but last year the club enjoyed its equal-best season to finish at 10-12 and be in finals contention until very late in the year.

Stuart Dew's side lost a couple of key players in Izak Rankine and Jack Bowes but will be bolstered by the return of key forward Ben King, who missed the entirety of 2022 after tearing his ACL in pre-season. It will be interesting to see how the forward line operates this year, given the success it had with Levi Casboult and Mabior Chol working in tandem.

The Suns' dynamic midfield trio is another reason for optimism. Touk Miller was arguably the best player in the league last year, while Noah Anderson has taken a gigantic leap in each of his three seasons and is now considered by some as a top 50 player in the AFL. Then there's Matt Rowell who started to work back into form late in the year. If these three stay on the park together, finals aren't out of the question at all.


2023 pass mark: Stick to Adam Kingsley's game plan

The Giants showed during pre-season that they will be playing a totally different game style in 2023 under new coach Adam Kingsley. Gone are the days of the slow ball movement and reliance on defensive 50 marking, instead, GWS will be looking to play with far more pace, adopting the Tiger tidal wave that propelled Richmond to so much success between 2017 and 2020.

Kingsley's fresh game plan held the Giants in great stead against the Suns in their practice match. They identified their inside players -- Josh Kelly, Tom Green and Lachie Ash -- and used them to feed the ball to the outside runners, who would play on at all costs. The Giants had more handballs than any other team during pre-season and finished the weekend with the highest disposal efficiency.

Few were high on the Giants after losing some key pieces in Tim Taranto and Jacob Hopper, but 2023 doesn't look like it will be anything close to a write off.


2023 pass mark: Continue to build the Mitchell brand of footy

Most Hawks fans will tell you their expectations are in check in 2023. In the offseason, they offloaded some key pieces, including Jack Gunston, TOm Mitchell, and Jaeger O'Meara, so expecting this side to finish above last year's mark of 13th on the ladder might be a stretch.

They're re-building, and under Sam Mitchell, they played a clearly defined game which, when it worked, looked great. They started last year 3-1 and very positively, on the back of a gameplan build on ground speed and fast ball movement. They played on from the mark the most of any side last year, used the corridor the second most of any side, and were ranked third for transition between defensive 50 and forward 50.

If they can continue to build a brand -- and perhaps add a contested side to things -- it's a tick from us.


2023 pass mark: Make a prelim

Everything is aligning for the Dees here. They went after and got one of the best rucks in the game in Brodie Grundy which will have flow-on effects into the forward line (hello, more avenues to goal), they added Lachie Hunter as another important midfield piece, the likes of Christian Petracca and Clayton Oliver don't look like slowing down, and their backline is arguably the best in the competition.

Last year's semifinal loss to Brisbane was disappointing, and no doubt Simon Goodwin and his charges are expecting a deeper run in 2023. From what we saw in preseason, they're already in midseason form. Surely it's a prelim or better for this battle-hardened, contested outfit.

North Melbourne

2023 pass mark: Get games into the club's exciting future

How high are expectations for North Melbourne this year - even given the Clarko move? The Roos moved heaven and earth to lure Clarkson back to the club he played at, and he -- and fans -- know there's no quick fix here, but an offseason which netted two of the best young guns in Harry Sheezel and George Wardlaw will help allay the concerns of the faithful for some time. That is, if they play meaningful minutes.

We saw Sheezel move from on the ball and across half forward to half back in the Roos' practice match against the Dogs - because that's where the ball was. It's probably not a bad idea to have him follow the ball and be a link person out of a defence which should be improved on the 2022 version given the pickup of Griffin Logue to pair with Ben McKay.

Port Adelaide

2023 pass mark: Make finals

This is it, Ken. It's do or die in 2023. After a down 2022 season which began with a catastrophic 0-5 start, Port Adelaide could only muster 10 wins and occupy 11th spot on the ladder, despite the gigantic expectations they had to carry following on from two consecutive preliminary final exits. Those expectations? Still gigantic.

An experienced spine, a midfield group boasting a Brownlow Medal winner and two improving stars bound to rise to another level in Connor Rozee and Zak Butters, the offseason inclusions of Jason Horne-Francis and Junior Rioli, a (hopefully) fit Orazio Fantasia, after just one game last season ... yeah, the Power are primed and ready, and anything less than a finals berth will be a firm fail and should spell the end of Hinkley's tenure.


2023 pass mark: Make a prelim

You can't bring midfield brutes Tim Taranto and Jacob Hopper into a side that's won three flags in the last six years, and get an uninterrupted year out of Dustin Martin, and not expect the seasoned Tigers to cause a headache in September.

Last year they came agonisingly close to knocking out the Lions in an elimination final thriller, and if things go their way in 2023, a top four finish could well and truly be on the agenda.

They've put all their eggs into this season's basket to get the most out of what's left of this dynasty, which, if they don't make finals at all, is probably over. They see themselves contending, so not reaching the final four would be a poor result.

St Kilda

2023 pass mark: Establish a brand under Ross Lyon

Make no mistake about it, the Saints need a steely edge and a DNA their fans can know and expect in a new, second era under Ross Lyon.

An 8-3 start turned into a 3-8 finish last season, going from one of the most effective front half teams to an, at times, leaky outfit, unable to score against the best.

Were they sound defensively? Sure, conceding the sixth-fewest points in the competition, but the drop off in offense led to a ladder freefall -- only three sides scored less goals and had less inside 50s -- and a backflip on the decision to extend Brett Ratten's contract by two years.

Lyon could be the perfect candidate to implant a resolute defence that has made his teams in the past so difficult to penetrate, but finding ways to turn defence into attack will be his challenge. And whether it leads to more wins this year than in 2022 shouldn't be how we measure the Saints' success in 2023.


2023 pass mark: Avoid the Grand Final loser curse

Death, taxes, and a heavily-defeated Grand Final loser failing to immediately make up for their heartbreaking loss in September. The fact is, since the 1995 decider, no team that lost a Grand Final by 40 or more points has won a final the following season.

Prior to 2022's Sydney, there were 12 teams this had occurred to, with six of them not even reaching the top eight.

People have a right to be bullish about the Swans' prospects and, with so much young talent and quality still on the list, they do too.

But remember the Dogs last season? Lucky to scrape in, and yet another week one loser. As history says, finals just ain't a given for the Bloods in 2023!

West Coast

2023 pass mark: Escape the bottom four

Everything that could have gone wrong for the Eagles last season, did. Will they have the same rotten luck with injuries and COVID interruptions leading to a reliance on top-up players? Well, no, realistically, and just that alone means they can be far more competitive.

They'll again relish the home ground advantage at Optus Stadium -- a tough trip for those sides on the east coast -- can enjoy the luxury of a more consistent line-up week-to-week, and will welcome the inclusions of premiership midfielder Dom Sheed and talented key forward Oscar Allen, who played one game between them last year.

They can, and should, win more games this season than they did in 2022 and are more than good enough to escape the doldrums of the AFL ladder, despite the youth that still needs to be blooded.

Fourteenth or better, their best should surprise a few.

Western Bulldogs

2023 pass mark: Get the best out of stacked tall mix

Luke Beveridge has arguably the competition's deepest stock of key position players at his disposal in 2023, and deploying them correctly will be paramount to his side's fortunes.

Both Liam Jones and Rory Lobb enter the fray to address a genuine need and hole that was exposed at the club in 2022 when injuries struck to key personnel, while No. 1 draft pick Jamarra Ugle-Hagan gets another preseason under his belt, Sam Darcy might just be ready to show his potential, and Aaron Naughton... well he needs no explanation.

The Dogs are absolutely stacked at both ends of the field and have an abundance of versatility to rely on as they eye a first top four finish in the AFL since 2010. It doesn't seem too far-fetched a goal if they can strike the right mix to complement what is already a star-studded midfield.