PATRICK Dangerfield has taken a major stride in his recovery from injury as Geelong prepares to re-deploy the superstar as a near-permanent midfielder in 2021.
Dangerfield admitted he was a "month behind" his ideal timeline ahead of round one but remains confident he'll have done enough work to face Adelaide at Adelaide Oval on March 21.
Coach Chris Scott feared Dangerfield's persistent groin injury – one that hampered him for much of last season – could become "chronic" if the club didn't act this summer.
It's meant Dangerfield has been eased back into main training while receiving treatment from medical guru Steve Saunders, with trips to Adelaide for up to four sessions a week.
But after re-joining match simulation at training on Thursday, the 30-year-old is now eyeing game time in Geelong's pre-season hitouts against Collingwood (February 26) and Essendon (March 6).
"It's all pretty positive at the moment," Dangerfield said after Thursday's training session.
"We had a good hitout today and it was sort of my first match sim, albeit not a huge amount, but a little bit, which is good.
"It always takes a little bit longer (to reach peak fitness).
"That being said, games makes it easier and the continuity of playing is always an adjustment anyway.
"It's probably not ideally where I'd like to be but the most important thing is I'm moving around fairly free and pain-free, which is good."
Dangerfield claimed his eighth AFL All-Australian blazer – and first as captain – last season after playing the bulk of the second half of the season as a dedicated forward.
But with the addition of Jeremy Cameron to partner Tom Hawkins in attack this year, Scott said all signs pointed to Dangerfield returning to the engine room.
"Given we're of the hope and belief he can play well into his 30s, it's important he got on top of his problem once and for all," Scott told AFL.com.au.
"There is a strong argument to say that it was allowed to linger for too long last year… it clearly impeded him.
"Obviously we didn't want to talk about it too much and make an issue of it during the year but that was part of the reason to play him forward a little bit more.
"We think he's got great capacity to play as a forward, especially when he's fully fit, but right at the moment we need him to be one of the premier midfielders in the competition and he can't do that while he's limited with his groin problems."
Scott admitted Dangerfield's history of playing through pain was tested last year.
"He was All-Australian last year, it's remarkable that he could still perform in some games the way he did," Scott said.
"I think the difference between last year and previous years, (previously) they tended to be acute things that were difficult for a game or two here and there and it was a credit to him to perform in that circumstance.
"Last year was that it had the potential to become a chronic thing."
Dangerfield holds a contract at the Cats until 2024, a season in which he'll turn 34.