Best 22 – round one
B: Andrew Mackie, Tom Lonergan, Tom Stewart
HB: Zach Tuohy, Lachie Henderson, Jackson Thurlow
C: Mark Blicavs, Cam Guthrie, Mitch Duncan
HF: Daniel Menzel, Harry Taylor, Lincoln McCarthy
F: Steven Motlop, Tom Hawkins, Nakia Cockatoo
Foll: Rhys Stanley, Patrick Dangerfield, Joel Selwood
I/C: Zac Smith, Josh Cowan, Sam Menegola, Tom Ruggles
The Cats don't have many injury concerns going into round one. Cam Guthrie missed most of the JLT Community Series with a calf but is expected to be right, but Scott Selwood is racing against time after battling a toe issue and Jake Kolodjashnij (groin) still needs to do a bit of work. Mitch Duncan didn't play in the last quarter against Essendon because of hamstring soreness however remains in the frame for selection, but it's going to be a longer road back for Cory Gregson (foot) and James Parsons (broken foot).
The big questions
Can they go to another level?
The Cats finished third in 2016 but were disappointing in the finals, bowing out to Sydney in the prelim. They've seen off retired stalwarts Jimmy Bartel and Corey Enright, and gained some defensive drive through the recruitment of Zach Tuohy from Carlton and the return of Jackson Thurlow from a knee injury. They've got the nucleus of a good side with two of the best midfielders in the competition and room to improve an already high-scoring attack, so the question remains if they can pull it all together and take another step forward.
How long do they persist with Harry Taylor as a key forward?
The move was tried in the pre-season games and didn't set the world on fire. He struggled to jell with full-forward Tom Hawkins and failed to make an impact in any of the hit-outs. They've declared the dual premiership defender as a certain forward line starter for round one, but how long will he stay there if it remains a move that doesn't deliver?
Are they too tall in defence?
They've got plenty of big guys that can go through there, even with the 195cm Taylor clearing out and moving down field. Lachie Henderson, Tom Lonergan, Jackson Thurlow, Jake Kolodjashnij and the untried Tom Stewart and Ryan Gardner are all 190cm-plus, with Tuohy (187cm) and Andrew Mackie (193cm) responsible for getting the ball moving. Whether they're packing too much height and not enough speed remains to be seen.
Nakia Cockatoo. Now in his third year, the explosive forward is coming off a strong pre-season where his fitness and confidence have increased. His 2016 season started with a two-game suspension for a dangerous pre-season tackle, and hit an unrecoverable bump in round seven when he injured his knee. But after a big summer and a personal goal to step up his game, the 20-year-old is poised to make an impact in attack and at times through the midfield.
Who they play
The Cats automatically cop a tougher draw than last season after finishing third, which means they'll face three top-six teams (Greater Western Sydney, Hawthorn and Adelaide), one middle-six team (Collingwood) and one bottom-six team (Fremantle) twice. They have one fewer game at Simonds Stadium and don't get to play there until round nine, when they'll unveil their brand new $91m stand in a Friday night clash with the Western Bulldogs, but that kicks off a consecutive burst of three of their seven games at their home ground. They'll be on the road a lot too, with six interstate trips including back-to-back travel to face the Giants and Brisbane Lions in rounds 15 and 16.
Fantasy cash cow
Rookie defender Zach Guthrie ($150,000) played two of the three JLT Community Series games and made an impression with 24 touches against Hawthorn and 18 versus Adelaide. Didn't play against Essendon after hyperextending his knee, which may hurt his chances of promotion before round one, but once the younger brother of Cam breaks into the senior side, he'll provide good value if he can replicate his under-18 figures that saw him rated above average for disposals, contested possessions, intercept marks and possessions, tackles and Champion Data ranking points.
The Cats' top draftee from last year, Brandan Parfitt, will play senior football in 2017, possibly as early as round one after three solid pre-season appearances. Defender Stewart is in the same boat following a promising trio of games. Former Blue Tuohy and ex-Kangaroo Aaron Black will also play; the former almost certainly against Fremantle on March 26 after a decent introduction as Enright's replacement. Guthrie looms as the other potential debutant, but needs to be elevated in order to play.
It's crunch time for…
Steven Motlop was on the trade table last year, and given he's coming out of contract and will be interested in his value on the open market – or the length and monetary worth of a new Geelong contract – he needs a big year. Came back to training in better shape this pre-season than he did the year before, but didn't make an impression in the two JLT Community Series games he played (he missed the Essendon game with illness). Fair to say he's at the crossroads in his ninth AFL season.
Pressure rating on the coach
Cool breeze. Chris Scott has a nifty winning percentage of 72 per cent from 142 games, and took the Cats from 10th in 2015 to third last year. They might have only won two finals since their 2011 premiership and would certainly want to add to that this year, but there's industry expectation he'll be re-signed until 2019 in the near future anyway.
The Cats will have a good year if…
Dangerfield and Selwood maintain their form, their second-tier mids step up, and they can generate more goals from the midfield. Their forward line also needs to function more efficiently than what it did in 2016.
They’re in trouble if …
Either of the above two gets hurt, the younger midfield brigade becomes too reliant on their champion teammates and simply expects them to get it done, and if they struggle to maintain their drive from defence like they did at times in 2016.
Making the finals is an expectation, and finishing in the top four isn't beyond them. They should still be stung by how badly they fell away against the Swans in the prelim, and will be hungry to press just as deep – or beyond – into September this year.
AFL.com.au predicted ladder finish
Player Ratings star
Patrick Dangerfield, first overall. It was pure domination from the former Crow in 2016, as he powered away to win his first Brownlow medal plus a swag of other awards, and top the Player Ratings with a total of 727.7 points.