Essendon senior coach John Worsfold says Jordan Ridley, Andrew McGrath and Kyle Langford are reaping the rewards from being patient in the formative years of their AFL careers.
The trio have been central to a young Bomber breed fuelling the team's rise in the early stages of the 2020 season, with McGrath thriving as a full-time midfielder and Ridley and Langford stepping up to cement spots in Worsfold's best 22.
Ridley in particular has been one of the competition's big improvers, earning votes in the AFL Coaches Association's AFL Champion Player Award in his past three games and ranked in the League's top 20 for rebound 50s, marks, contested marks, one-percenters and effective disposals per game.
The 21-year-old had played just nine senior games before the season, with Worsfold saying the No.22 draft pick had to use 2019 as a year of learning before forcing his way into a talented half-back line.
"Jordan's been developing at a steady rate," Worsfold told 3AW.
"We challenged him last year to learn some nuances around the game by playing on a wing for periods. He's such a good runner and such a good kick, that you could see him having a big impact on games playing on a wing, but it's a totally different look. You're switching from offence to defence so much more regularly on a wing and you're in stoppages a bit more, but we wanted him to learn more about that.
"We were being patient, and sometimes that's hard on younger players. They already want to be a half-back in the seniors. It challenged him, he found it hard at times, but he learnt a lot from it. He had a really good pre-season and a great one the previous year, and we expected to see him blossom this year, and he's done that.
"He's a great kid and he works extremely hard. He's a good runner, he uses the ball well, and now we're seeing him taking contested marks and rounding out his overall game. That's been a work in progress."
Ridley quality. Spoils at right time, good mark, great kick and plays the game.— dustinfletcher31 (@dustinfletch31) July 3, 2020
McGrath, the Bombers' first-ever No.1 draft pick, has been gradually exposed to a midfield role over his career.
Now in his fourth season, the 22-year-old is a mainstay in the engine room, averaging 22 disposals and six tackles as a crucial component of the Bombers' pressure-heavy game style.
Worsfold said McGrath's transition had been meticulously planned.
"Over the last three to four years we've tried to develop Andy McGrath into the type of midfielder we want him to be, but we can't just throw him in there straight away," he said.
"He's a very, very driven young man. He's got big goals he's aiming for, but he's got that trust, and he'll listen to the coaches and develop according to what we're planning.
"We had our eyes on a bigger picture for him. We did believe that with the make-up of him, he could become an elite midfielder. That meant starting back, then occasionally back, a bit of time up on a wing, then almost 100 per cent game time on the wing last year and the odd game on-ball and in the stoppages, really prepping for this next step.
"People feel like he's really jumped up as a mid, but he's followed a strong progression and we think we've set him up to play this role for a long period for the footy club."
Like McGrath, the Bombers had always planned to transition Langford to midfield despite him playing his draft year as a forward for Northern Knights.
The big-bodied 23-year-old has been in and out of the senior team in his short career, but has grown in stature this season as he splits his time between midfield and forward.
"In my first year at Essendon we told Kyle Langford that we wanted him to learn to play as an inside midfielder, but he needed to do that in the VFL. He accepted that, went back and worked really hard to learn the craft of stoppage work as a big mid," Worsfold said.
"He had to be patient, and now we're starting to see the rewards. He was drafted as a kid who played more up forward, so the bonus now is that he can go forward and hit the scoreboard, but he brings some strong midfield craft as well."
The Bombers have made a promising start to the season, sitting fourth after six rounds with a game in hand.
Their only blemish has been a one-point defeat to Carlton in a week that saw their players quarantined for 48 hours following Conor McKenna's positive COVID-19 test.
Worsfold said the start was vindication of a carefully considered build.
"Everything's been geared towards how we want to look in five or six years, maybe even longer," he said.
"We've been really patient with this build, slowly putting it all together. While we've been doing that, we've added some good young defenders like Ridley, Redman and Francis. We're also seeing the forward-line group, which is probably the group we haven't been able to settle with injuries to Joe Daniher and Orazio Fantasia in recent years, starting to settle. It's all coming together well."