The challengers are coming from everywhere and the pundit vultures are circling, but Sydney coach John Longmire isn’t worrying about whether 2016 is the year his team finally bottoms out.
Longmire has presided over a commendably consistent program, with Sydney not missing an AFL finals series in his first five years in charge.
Sixth spot in his rookie year was followed by four successive top-four home and away finishes, including a grand final win in 2012 and a minor premiership and grand final defeat two years later.
But for the first time in his tenure, Longmire in 2015 suffered the indignity of Sydney bowing out of the finals in straight sets.
The negative chatter among the cynics intensified with the Swans losing five premiership players and almost 1000 games of AFL experience.
The retirements of Adam Goodes, Rhyce Shaw and Mike Pyke and the move to other clubs of Lewis Jetta and Crag Bird left Sydney with some big holes to fill.
Another obvious question mark is whether star forward Lance Franklin can bounce back to his brilliant best after mental health issues ended his 2015 campaign early.
Longmire is confident he can, and will continue to rotate his other major scoring weapon Kurt Tippett between the forward line and the ruck.
“We don’t under-estimate how hard the challenge is,” Longmire told AAP.
“The draft, the salary cap, we push against that every year and we’ll be doing our best to do the same thing again.
“Teams outside the eight going into this year are probably as strong performers and as strong expectations, as almost there’s ever been.
“We understand the competition is going to be as tough as what we can remember, but we’re also confident that we can perform at a really strong level.”
Sydney added former Bulldogs key defender Daniel Talia and ex-Eagles ruckman Callum Sinclair to their list.
Talia will provide valuable cover for the reliable but ageing key defensive duo of Ted Richards and Heath Grundy.
Longmire will be looking for some of his youngsters to step up and support midfield titans Josh Kennedy, Dan Hannebery, Luke Parker, Kieren Jack and Jarrad McVeigh, who along with impressive rookie Callum Mills is a candidate to be the rebounding defender to replace Shaw.
An infusion of new blood through the draft, the recruitment of Talia and Sinclair and the anticipated development of several emerging players has Longmire bullish about covering the losses.
“We’re confident that we can replace those guys,” Longmire said.
“You don’t replace like for like with Adam Goodes, I think everyone understands that, but we’ve still got options in our team that we think the more that they play and the more confidence they get, the better they’ll go.”
Longmire isn’t just looking for a lift from his young guys, citing the example of Grundy, who had a career-best year in 2015 at he age of 29.
Coach: John Longmire
Captains: Jarrad McVeigh, Kieren Jack
Last five years: 5-6-1-4-2
Premierships: 5 (1909, 1918, 1933, 2005, 2012)
Key five: Josh Kennedy, Lance Franklin, Dan Hannebery, Kieren Jack, Luke Parker
One to watch: Isaac Heeney. Only a mid-season knee injury prevented the blond bombshell from making a big challenge for the Rising Star Award in his debut season. Give him a full campaign to showcase his wares and Heeney could be anything.
Ins: Jordan Dawson (Sturt, SANFL), Kyle Galloway (Shepparton Bears, Vic), Tyrone Leonardis (Northern U18), Callum Mills (North Shore, NSW), Sam Murray (Wodonga Raiders, Vic), Sam Naismith (rookie elevation), Colin O’Riordan (international rookie), Tom Papley (Gippsland U18), Callum Sinclair (West Coast), Michael Talia (Western Bulldogs).
Outs: Craig Bird (Essendon), Adam Goodes (retired), Lewis Jetta (West Coast), Sean McLaren (delisted), Lloyd Perris (delisted), Mike Pyke (retired), Rhyce Shaw (retired).
B: Nick Smith, Ted Richards, Michael Talia
HB: Jarrad McVeigh, Heath Grundy, Dane Rampe
C: Dan Hannebery, Josh Kennedy, Kieren Jack
HF: Lance Franklin, Sam Reid, Gary Rohan
F: Isaac Heeney, Kurt Tippett, Dean Towers
R: Callum Sinclair, Luke Parker, Tom Mitchell
I: Jeremy Laidler, Harry Cunningham, Ben McGlynn, Callum Mills
Predicted finish: 4th
Betting (William Hill)
To win the flag: $12
To make the top eight: $1.35