Former AFL players Kyle Dunkley and Joe Atley have signed with Essendon for the 2021 VFL and East Coast Second-Tier Competition.
The inside midfielders are the first key signings under new VFL senior coach Leigh Tudor, who will continue to lead the growth of the Bombers' first to third-year players alongside development and VFL senior assistant coach Cameron Roberts.
Dunkley, 20, joins Essendon after two seasons and five AFL games for Melbourne.
The younger brother of Western Bulldogs premiership player Josh Dunkley and son of Sydney great Andrew Dunkley, he arrived at the Demons via pick No.3 in the inaugural mid-season rookie draft in 2019.
Atley, 22, played four AFL games for Port Adelaide after being selected at pick No.32 in the 2016 NAB AFL Draft.
The younger brother of North Melbourne's Shaun Atley, he is a contested bull who averaged 23 disposals for Port Adelaide in the 2019 SANFL.
Tudor said Dunkley and Atley would be valuable additions.
"They’re both good inside players. They're strong at the ball, strong at the man, and have some experience and bigger bodies, which is exactly what we need to help our younger guys," Tudor said.
"They’ll be great for our program and we expect them to lead us in the VFL this year.
"We’re going to be a young (AFL) side, so we’re trying to put together a strong VFL list to complement those guys."
Tudor, who steered Essendon's reserves in last season's scratch matches in Queensland, will formally take the coaching reins in a new-look VFL competition that has expanded to include clubs from Queensland and New South Wales.
Alongside Roberts and new head of VFL East Coast Bernard Shepheard, Tudor's mission is to strengthen the club's VFL-AFL alignment, assemble a strong VFL squad and build a program that will fast-track the development of the Bombers' youngsters.
He said there was already a collective buy-in from the AFL coaches to the VFL program.
"About a third of our (AFL) squad is three years or under, so Ben (Essendon senior coach Ben Rutten) and Josh (general manager, football Josh Mahoney) have put a big emphasis on development," Tudor said.
"It’s a good fit. Cam (Roberts) and I look after our one to three-year players in the development, so for us to be able to control the VFL, play the same way as the AFL and speak the same language, we really want it to be a program that copies the AFL.
"Already the AFL line coaches Blake Caracella, Dan Jordan and Daniel Giansiracusa have come down and taken sessions with our VFL team. We’re taking it seriously. We want to train up our boys as quickly as we can and get them ready to play VFL football, so that with our young AFL group, we can support them as much as we can."
The VFL pre-season is just a month old for the Bombers, who will finalise their list in March and appoint a new captain following the retirement of Aaron Heppell.
While the fixture for the 19-round season is yet to be released, round one will begin on April 17, with a top-eight finals series beginning on August 28 and the grand final earmarked for the weekend of September 18-19.
The Bombers will enter the season on the back of a preliminary final exit in 2019.