West Coast will suffer a form dip from their surprise top-four run of last season before bursting back as a major premiership player in 2013, according to Hawthorn legend Dermott Brereton.
The five-times premiership great warned that the promising batch of Eagles youngsters would face intense scrutiny from opponents this season and their ability to stand up to the heat would shape their prospects.
Brereton, who also challenged Fremantle to make good on their potential as a finals side this year in their first season under coach Ross Lyon, said West Coast's hopes may be blunted by the older stars fading physically.
"I think they'll take a mini-step backwards in 2012 and then they might just about be the team to beat in 2013," Brereton said.
"If you look at their absolute top-liners, they're on the wrong side of 30. No matter what people say, you cannot expect them to keep improving. The odds are that they'll be good value, but the odds are that they're going to slide a little bit.
"Let's say you take 5 per cent off all of them - and that's a feasible estimation - can the likes of their younger boys, who were fantastic and jumped out of their skin in 2011, pick up 6 per cent each?
"That's a big ask and unless they pick up more than the slack the older blokes have dropped off, they're going to hover. The opposition players are going to be watching videos of those younger players and if they come out with the same plan, the good players will have better knowledge of them.
"We're only talking a smidgen off the pace and they may only drop one spot on the ladder.
"But if they don't reach their lofty standards of 2011 this year, I wouldn't be too disheartened."
But Brereton, part of the new expert team for Foxtel's dedicated football channel, said it was frightening for opponents to think how good Eagles ruckman Nic Naitanui might become in the next three seasons.
"None of the real big guys have a great leap, he's a real big guy and he's got a great leap ... it's unfair," he said.
"But he needs knowledge of the game and time on the deck. You won't be saying this is one of the greatest players I've ever seen until about 2015 - he's still a boy right now.
"Imagine when he gets knowledge into his game of what to do. He's going to be extraordinary."
Brereton said Lyon would bring a much-needed hardness to Fremantle this season.
"Remember when Mick Malt- house went to coach the West Coast Eagles 20-odd years ago?" he said.
"It was an edge he took to them. Expect that same edge (with Lyon). "I think they need what he offers as a coach. This is the first time I reckon I've seen Fremantle go 'bang, we've got teeth'.
"This is the first time you sat back and thought they were in it to kill people off on the ladder and really bared fangs. Fifth or sixth is somewhere I reckon their list should be at."
Brereton also applauded Fremantle's expected move to station Matthew Pavlich more regularly in the forward line.
"When I'm watching the game as a passive Hawthorn supporter, I don't like seeing him in the forward line against us," he said.I think they'll take a mini-step backwards in 2012."Dermott Brereton