Zach Merrett is wary of the road ahead for Essendon in the AFL, even with the return of their banned players.
On Wednesday, the suspensions end for the 17 current AFL players found guilty of doping offences stemming from the Essendon supplements debacle.
Of those, 12 are at Essendon and nine have re-signed at the club.
Only captain Jobe Watson is yet to decide his future.
Essendon finished last this season, but the Bombers stood firm and look well-placed to improve in 2017.
But Merrett, who won the club best and fairest award this season for the first time, said nothing is guaranteed.
“I’d love to say we’re aiming for the premiership – I think we are – but obviously we finished only 15th (last year) with those (banned) guys as well,” Merrett said.
“We definitely understand there’s a lot of hard work to be done and we’re a long way back from where we’d like to be.
“But it’s exciting as well – we can really paint a picture of how the club goes forward.”
Merrett said he had spoken to Dyson Heppell, one of the returning players, this week – but not to Watson.
“He (Watson) is obviously a key player for us and someone who’s won a Brownlow Medal, so it speaks about how good a player he is on the field,” Merrett said.
“Off the field, he’s a fantastic leader as well, so it would be great for the younger boys in the club if he came back.
“He obviously has everyone in Australia wondering what he’s going to do.”
Essendon will let the players ease back into the club, with apparently no organised sessions this week.
Of the 12, Michael Hibberd wants a trade and Tayte Pears has retired from senior football.
On Tuesday night, Merrett was rewarded for his fine season when he was named vice-captain of the AFL Players Association’s 2016 commemorative under-22 team.