Ryan Burton is a natural footballer, and the obvious 2017 Rising Star

From the time he slipped to pick 19 in the 2015 national draft, Ryan Burton has been lauded as one of the best in his draft class. Of course, in his first year on Hawthorn’s list, it was all about his potential; “the Hawks have done it again hey, picking up a gun in the draft without the high picks”.

Burton fell into the Hawks’ laps because he literally obliterated his left leg in a marking contest during his under 18s year for North Adelaide. A rare injury, a tibial plateau fracture, could have ended his chances for selection there and then. For a lesser player, it probably would have.

But Burton was not a lesser player. He was touted as a top five pick. However, the injury was severe enough to see him slip to the tail end of the first round. Ten other teams had a chance to pick him up – a highly skilled, well sized, ready made prospect. Just one with a dicky knee.

Hawthorn had just come off the third of their three straight premierships, and it looked (as it always does at the time) as though a fourth was not beyond the realm of possibility. Their list was older, but still had enough talent entering its prime to make you think a relatively smooth transition was in order. So, the Hawks could afford to take a punt that Burton was more than an injury risk.

How quickly things can change.

Burton sat out most of the 2016 season as the Hawks close-won their way to a top four spot. He debuted in Round 21, selected to play in the Hawthorn forward line as was his position for his junior career. He kicked 1.2 as part of seven score involvements on just ten possessions. Flexed to the backline in Round 23, Burton had nine intercept possessions and helped set up five scores. Copping what coach Alastair Clarkson described as a “pretty savage corkie” in the second quarter of the qualifying final, Burton’s season was over.

Hawthorn’s 2017 morphed from disaster to merely average, and suddenly the flyer the Hawks took on a catastrophically injured but highly rated draft pick needed to pay out. Burton was Hawthorn’s earliest selection since Isaac Smith in 2010, and only the fourth player in a decade they’d nabbed inside the top 20.

There is talent across Hawthorn’s list, but not a lot of it is in the A-class, blue chip category like Burton. He simply has to come through.

On this year’s form, the front office would be breathing a little easier. Burton has been stellar in Hawthorn’s almost completely refurbished back six, reprising the role he played in Round 23 2016 over a 20 game Rising Star campaign.

Burton averaged 21 disposals, 5.7 marks, three spoils and five contested possessions per game. His more advanced stats are also solid to excellent: 5.9 intercept possessions and 3.5 score involvements per game, despite gathering 78 per cent of his possessions in Hawthorn’s defensive half.

He turned the ball over a little more than you’d like (4.6 turnovers on 21.3 disposals, or one in five disposals), but Hawthorn’s transition from back half to front was a sore point all season. Otherwise, Burton emerged as the cornerstone of an otherwise up-in-the-air Hawks’ backline.

Burton’s best game was Round 14’s shock win again the Adelaide Crows. Burton gathered six intercept possessions, gained 438 metres and kicked two long range goals in a 21 disposal outing. A week later he went rampant with 29 touches playing higher up the ground and pumping the ball inside Hawthorn’s forward 50 five times. He displayed oodles of agility for a man standing more than 192cm tall, and was a handful for Collingwood’s flaky forward line. A week later, he was solid in Hawthorn’s draw with the GWS Giants, but showed his nose for the game by attempting to spike what would have been a winning point through the goal posts as time expired. Burton is a natural footballer, whatever that means in 2017.

His season is directly comparable to Essendon’s Andrew McGrath, given they both played most of their football in the backline – albeit McGrath was afforded some more time and space in a loose man role with more frequency. Burton averaged more disposals (21.3 vs 19.7), way more marks (5.7 vs 3.9), more spoils (3.1 vs 1.9) and more intercepts (5.9 vs 4.9). Burton turned the ball over more frequently (4.6 vs 2.9), but that’s likely explained his tendency to kick vs handball (1.69 kick to handball ratio vs 0.78).

Layer on that McGrath slot into a stable back six anchored by the All Australian centre half back, compared to the dire circumstances of Burton’s second year in the league where he was ultimately the most consistent presence. The choice here is clear.

Where it gets complicated is comparing Burton to Port Adelaide’s Sam Powell-Pepper. The Sultan of Smash has, like Burton, has played beyond his years and made a spot in the Power’s best 22 his own from his first game onward. I’m all aboard the Burton Express, but like 2015’s race between Patrick Cripps and Jesse Hogan it comes down to personal preferences.

Ryan Burton’s Rising Star year was outstanding, and he is the clear winner of this year’s award. Hawthorn will be hoping – nay, praying – his 2017 is a sign of things to come. For both his health and high level of play.

Rising Star Week

All week, the Onballers will pump up the tyres of a contender for the 2017 NAB AFL Rising Star award.

Tuesday: Eric Hipwood, the alien with limitless potential
Wednesday: Andrew McGrath, the number one number one pick
Thursday: Ryan Burton, Mr Natural
Friday: Sgt, Powell-Pepper, and his endless body count