The Adelaide Football Club is set for another challenging AFL season in 2022, though, despite being in a rebuilding phase, there are fresh sparks of hope for the pride of South Australia this year with their young stars set to step up.
The end of the 2021 season was a far cry from Adelaide's 'moving forward' attitude of their year, the controversies of Taylor Walker and his suspension, as well as the moving-on of certain players made for a difficult start to the offseason.
Things got better in November, as the club hit up the draft for fresh faces that can be injected immediately into their 22.
However, it's not been an ideal start to preseason matches for the Crows and they'll be hoping to improve in the coming weeks before the season officially gets underway. Their internal trial was postponed due to a Covid-outbreak among the group where several players and staff were considered close contacts. This was followed by an 89-point thrashing at the hands of the Brisbane Lions last weekend.
There is plenty to like in this Crows side, especially in the potential of the younger players, but it's going to be another up-and-down season for fans to ride.
HOW CAN THEY IMPROVE?
The Crows might have to go backwards to go forward in 2022 and, with some big list changes in the offseason, we can expect an inconsistent season featuring some low patches of football.
Realistically there are improvements to be made right across the ground, even in the midfield where they were strongest during 2021.
Matthew Nicks will have some interesting decisions to make throughout the year, especially when it comes to deciding whether to stick with players or challenge them and omitting for fresh blood.
But there's potential and excitement, so will they improve in 2021?
HOW DID THEY DO LAST YEAR?
15th - seven wins, 15 losses
There were low expectations for Adelaide in season 2021 and to be fair, they exceeded what most thought they'd achieve.
The Crows opened their season with a win over Geelong, shocking many. They picked up further wins during the first half of the year, though dropped plenty too, before knocking off the team who would become Premiers in Melbourne.
For a team tipped to be fighting for the wooden spoon, they managed seven wins - the same as Hawthorn and Gold Coast - but when looking at the teams they beat versus the teams they lost to, it's no wonder their fans remained frustrated.
Jordan Dawson (Traded)
Daniel Talia (Retired)
Josh Rachele (Drafted)
Bryce Gibbs (Retired)
Jake Soligo (Drafted)
David Mackay (Retired)
Zac Taylor (Drafted)
Jake Kelly (Free Agency)
Luke Nankervis (Pre-season Draft)
Ronin O'Connor (Delisted)
Tyson Stengle (Delisted)
Tom Lynch (Delisted)
While last year was inconsistent, it was inconsistent for a reason: the Crows blooded plenty of youth in 2021, nine debutants in fact, and with a season now under their belt, the players will be better off for it.
It means that instead of these players having at least a couple of preseasons in their legs, and matchday experience, giving them understanding and awareness of what it takes to perform at the level above SANFL.
Players such as Thilthorpe (14 games), James Rowe (19 games), Sam Berry (17 games) and Nick Murray (13 games) all took their chances after debuting in 2021 and will be better for the experience.
One other strength of the Crows this season should be their fitness, after guru Darren Burgess left the premiers to return home to South Australia and see what he can do with one of the lower-ranked sides.
Burgess helped the Demons take Premiership glory in 2021 and now the Crows have acquired his services for their AFL and AFLW teams. The AFLW team seem to be tracking pretty well with their gut running, demonstrated by their ability to outlast teams such as Fremantle on the weekend, and fans would be keen to see something similar from the AFL team.
One of the areas that could be a real problem in 2022, and was already a glaring issue against Brisbane in the practice game, is the lack of a defensive unit at the Crows. The group conceded 138 points on Saturday.
The departure of retiree Daniel Talia, who succumbed to the effects of an extensive injury history, and Jake Kelly, who moved as a free agent to Essendon, only weakened an already weak defensive line.
There are plenty of players there to take on a role down back, but their quality is not quite that of the sides tracking for a top-eight finish.
Adelaide did recruit Jordan Dawson from Sydney, however, whether the defender plays in that unit will be something to watch in the early parts of this season. Dawson is currently on light duties with a calf complaint, but his position in defence or on the wing will be an interesting call for Nicks to make.
The light defence means the Crows will have to outscore their teams with aggressive forward options, an area where they are also young and lacking key targets, especially with Walker out for the opening rounds.
Josh Rachele was picked up by the Adelaide Crows at Pick Six in the national draft and by all reports is already a star in the making for this team.
The multi-year extension the forward has already signed demonstrates just how highly the Crows rate him. Rachele and fellow draftee Pick 36 Jake Soligo have signed on until the end of 2025 before they even take the field for their AFL debuts.
Rachele played for the Murray Bushrangers in his draft year and was rated highly as a forward going into the 2021 draft.
He is set for an early debut this season and will have an immediate impact, playing alongside some other young stars in the Crows' forward 50.
PREDICTION FOR 2022
Rory Sloane will once again captain the side in 2022, and they'll need his level-head and experience as the team faces another challenging year.
The midfield will continue to be important to feeding the footy to their young, Lynch-less forward line, and backing up the developing defensive unit.
Rory Laird, Paul Seedsman, Ben Keays and Sloane were prolific for the Crows in 2021, leaving nothing in the tank no matter how the match was tracking and will need to continue to build on this in 2022.
There's plenty of hope of the Crows' young stars lighting up Adelaide Oval, and grounds around the nation, as they pick up at least seven wins again in 2022 for a middle of the road finish.