Pies re-sign ... but now for Grundy conundrum
Collingwood has baulked at Brodie Grundy's initial contract asking price as the jam-packed Magpies strive to keep their superstar list together beyond next season.
The Pies announced on Friday that five players had signed new one-year deals - veterans Ben Reid and Travis Varcoe, along with Tim Broomhead (rookie), Rupert Wills and Jack Madgen (Category B rookie).
But it is the signature of ace big man Grundy, widely considered one of the top handful of players in the league after finishing sixth in the Brownlow Medal, that looms as their key focus in 2020 as he seeks a massive deal in the vicinity of $7 million to $8 million over seven years.
It would be the richest contract ever handed to an AFL ruckman, topping considerable deals for Melbourne's Max Gawn, Eagle Nic Naitanui and now retired premiership Bulldog Tom Boyd.
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But with out-of-contract teammates Jordan De Goey and Darcy Moore also seeking significant pay increases next year, and a talented midfield group to retain, Collingwood is hopeful of finding a slight compromise on Grundy's next whopping pay packet.
Already, the club's salary cap is bursting at the seams, after consecutive top-four finishes.
Whether Grundy, 25, accepts a lesser offer to stay in black and white - or makes a bigger-money move home to South Australia or elsewhere - is the most fascinating aspect of what is looming as a blockbuster free agency pool next year.
List managers all agree, it's the best free agency group - flush with gun big men in particular - the game has seen since the controversial concept was introduced seven years ago.
We know Geelong is super keen on Jeremy Cameron, Joe Daniher has already tried and failed to leave Essendon for Sydney, Lachie Whitfield is North Melbourne's next dream target and no one would be surprised to see Brad Crouch join the marching band out of the Crows.
Captains Dyson Heppell (Essendon), Jack Viney (Melbourne) and Scott Pendlebury (Collingwood) are also off-contract in 2020.
But Grundy's situation seems the most polarising because of the diverse opinion across the league surrounding the current value of ruckmen in the game.
Not that Collingwood doesn't value the dual best-and-fairest winner and two-time All-Australian.
Currently, he's the Magpies' best player.
Indeed, the Pies remain confident they can find the middle ground on a mega deal to keep the 203cm matchwinner, but are also having to prepare a range of outcomes in case things go nuclear.
The powerhouse ruckman's around-the-ground mobility and follow-up work at ground level is one of the Magpies' biggest weapons, and he's coming off consecutive career-best years.
Off the field Grundy has been equally instrumental, driving considerable change in the club's culture.
Clearly, he is on the up in the emerging leaders' group.
WHAT VALUE, A DOMINANT RUCKMAN?
In the last quarter of the preliminary final loss to Greater Western Sydney, Grundy fought-out 42 ruck contests for 30 hit-outs, mostly against veteran Shane Mumford.
According to Champion Data, only one of Grundy's hit-outs was to advantage as the Pies lost the clearance battle nine to 14 in the thrilling last term.
In the wet, they simply couldn't convert.
Collingwood finished 16th for centre clearance differential for the season - with the best ruckman and arguably the best midfield brigade in the league.
They're interesting numbers for Nathan Buckley to stew over this summer as Collingwood looks for improved midfield connection in the middle part of the ground next year.
As Grundy noted in the aftermath of the preliminary final defeat: "I won the hit-outs pretty convincingly but we couldn't convert that into our favour. I have got to take ownership of that as well and (we need to) build on that midfield chemistry into 2020".
But could that mean less is more for the only man in the competition to average 21 possessions and 43 hit-outs a game last season?
There are other questions: Less wrenching the ball out of the ruck? Less kicks around the ground? More time forward? And more contested marking efforts down the line and behind the ball?
Whatever answer Buckley settles on, there's upside there for Collingwood in this area, and big man Darcy Cameron has come from Sydney to help Brody Mihocek in the aerial battle in the forward half.
But from a list management perspective, the Magpies are taking a strong approach to negotiations towards its in-demand free agent.
Overall, the Pies' strategy seems more in-line with Hawthorn's big-picture view when it made the huge call to let go one of the biggest stars the game has ever seen in Lance Franklin, and subsequently won the next two premierships.
When AFL boss Gillon McLachlan asked Alastair Clarkson what was Hawthorn's secret after the club's third-straight flag in 2015, Clarkson said it was because the club didn't overpay.
Stars such as Luke Hodge, Jordan Lewis and Jarryd Roughead all copped less.
Back then, Clarkson said, the Hawks didn't have one of the highest 30 paid players in the league, something McLachlan double-checked himself as he flicked through the pages contained in the folders behind his desk.
Even now, it's hard to know who would be the top dog at the Hawks in the pay stakes.
FINDING THE RIGHT CONTRACT FORMULA
Richmond has gone down a different path, satisfying Dustin Martin, in particular, with a monster seven-figure deal, as well as keeping happy Alex Rance, Trent Cotchin, Jack Riewoldt and new recruit Tom Lynch with their own juicy contracts.
The Magpies, who are also determined to retain Moore and De Goey on the best part of $800,000 a year as well, want to spread the love across the squad.
If they can keep Grundy, Moore and De Goey, list chief Ned Guy will deserve a bronze statue outside Olympic park.
Collingwood fans will go nuts if Grundy makes the free agency move interstate, netting the Pies only one single first-round draft pick as free agency compensation.
That will be in the No.15-to-No.18 range if Buckley's men finish top-four, under league rules.
The other option is to strike a Paddy Dangerfield trade which netted the Crows picks No.9, No.28 and Dean Gore in a trade with Geelong.
But to go down that path Collingwood would have to match the highest free agency bid - something it may be unable or unwilling to do.
Grundy has already spoken about the lure of going back home to South Australia to continue his glittering career. The carrot, he says, is real.
And his manager Robbie D'Orazio, who oversaw Lynch's brilliant move to Richmond one year ago, was not kidding when he said rival clubs had already begun making inquiries.
And they are adamant about Grundy's seven-year term, and are certain they will get it.
"I think seven years could even be a bit short (for Grundy)," D'Orazio said.
"He is not just a ruckman, he is the ultimate pro.
"We will stand by that (contract price). I'm sure in the end we will get what we need."
That could be interpreted as a line in the sand. And while the dialogue is ongoing between the two parties, the next few months of talks could be crucial. Grundy is arguably the most important pillar in the Pies' list.
WHAT NEXT FOR THE PIES?
Collingwood wants to keep its marquee man, without losing the collective strength of the side around him.
But St Kilda great Leigh Montagna said a seven-year deal was a risk for a 25-year-old ruckman.
"I would definitely give him the big bucks, but I wouldn't give him seven years," Montagna said.
"I would give him five, maybe six. Not seven.
"The club is bigger than the individual and what does that mean for De Goey and Darcy Moore, why doesn't De Goey ask for seven years?
"I think Collingwood should hold their nerve and offer him five years on big money and Brodie shouldn't be disappointed or upset with that.
"He should take it."