The San Francisco 49ers have a long line of elite middle and inside linebackers. With starting middle linebacker Reuben Foster suspended for the first two games, Fred Warner has the chance to show why he belongs among those ranks.
The San Francisco 49ers have had some of the best middle and inside linebackers in the league over the past decade. This lineage includes Patrick Willis, Navarro Bowman, Chris Borland, and more recently Reuben Foster. Selected in the third round of the 2018 draft, Fred Warner looks to join those ranks.
On the surface, it may not have looked like the 49ers needed a linebacker. They drafted Foster in the first round of the 2017 draft. They signed Malcolm Smith in 2017 to a five-year contract to play weakside linebacker. However, the 49ers lacked talented depth before the 2018 draft, then Foster got into some legal trouble leaving the 2018 season, let alone his career in jeopardy.
Smith’s name may be recognizable from his 2013 Super Bowl MVP. Though his career started out promising in Seattle, it has been downhill ever since. Signing with the Oakland Raiders in 2015, Smith did lead the Raiders in tackles that season. However, he was far from good, especially in coverage in 2016, where he gave up 6 touchdowns and a passer rating of 113 when targeted. Over his two seasons with the Raiders, Smith missed a horrendous 36 tackles. What did the 49ers get from their investment? A lost season due to a torn pectoral.
With the questionable signing of Smith, lack of linebacker depth, and questions surrounding Foster, the 49ers needed to draft a linebacker. Enter Fred Warner.
Though not nearly as prolific of a tackler as some of the top-end linebackers in the 2018 draft class, Warner was a stat sheet stuffer for BYU. In his three seasons as a starting linebacker for the Cougars, Warner averaged 79 tackles and accrued 31.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, 6 interceptions, 12 passes defended, 3 forced fumbles and 5 fumble recoveries. He also only gave up 1 touchdown in coverage in those three seasons.
Warner played the walkout/overhang linebacker role, effectively a nickel linebacker/safety hybrid in the NFL. This role tasked Warner with a lot of coverage assignments, where he excelled. This is evidenced by the above coverage stats. In fact, pass coverage is Warner’s strength due to his size and athleticism. This is very important for a linebacker in the NFL. Something, if you recall, Malcolm Smith struggled with.
This is a hell of an INT of Josh Rosen by Fred Warner from BYU. Just breaking this up would be impressive, let alone taking the ball away: pic.twitter.com/Z0sINyTRUD
— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) April 17, 2018
— Dave Noriega (@davenoriega) November 11, 2017
Warner has shown some weaknesses when it comes to stopping the run. However, there are plenty of examples where he is able to make the play on the runner. The tweet below by John Chapmen (@JL_Chapman) does a great job of showing that, though he is not flashy, Warner can be a good run stopper.
Fred Warner-49ers #70 OVR 3rd round pick 6 Film/Thead
BYU- OLB 6’3” 236 (4.64)
3 year starter with 262 career tackles and 6.5 sacks with 7INTs and 13PDs. #1 trait is gap integrity and doing his job.@49ersHive @49erswebzone @NothingBut9ers @NinersNation #FredWarner #BYU #49ers pic.twitter.com/xKtAg1dFNh
— John Chapman (@JL_Chapman) April 28, 2018
The 49ers selected Warner with the 70th overall pick in the third round. Warner started to show his versatility right away, taking reps at both middle and weakside linebacker. Due to Smith’s “tweaked” groin, Warner was given first-team reps in OTAs next to Foster. The surprising part is that Warner was taking reps at middle linebacker and Foster taking reps at weakside linebacker. Outside linebackers coach and run game specialist Johnny Holland, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, and head coach Kyle Shanahan all had good things to say about Warner.
Outside linebackers coach and run game specialist Johnny Holland spoke with media about working with Solomon Thomas, Fred Warner, and Reuben Foster during OTAs. pic.twitter.com/7EgQwoXPw1
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) June 1, 2018
NFL Preseason Game Action
Unfortunately, Warner injured his chest early in camp and was unable to participate in contact drills and was forced to miss the preseason season opener. He was able to suit up for the 49ers second preseason game against the Houston Texans. Playing with the second team, Warner led the 49ers with five tackles and also recovered a fumble.
— John Chapman (@JL_Chapman) August 19, 2018
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) August 19, 2018
With Foster out with a concussion, Warner started at middle linebacker in the 49ers third preseason game against the Indianapolis Colts. Warner led the 49ers in tackles as well as the linebackers in snap count.
49ers rookie LB Fred Warner (#48) has been drawing praise & had a really active 1st half against the Colts. Nice job disengaging here for the run stop. pic.twitter.com/pYlw6lF8mH
— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) August 26, 2018
Warner did not suit up in the 49ers final preseason game, which is a good indication that he was in line to start week 1.
NFL Regular Season Game Action
Shanahan all but confirmed that Warner would start. The 49ers week 1 unofficial depth chart finally confirmed that Warner would start at middle linebacker against the Minnesota Vikings in Foster’s absence. Warner took full advantage of his chance. He played in 100% of the 49ers defensive snaps. In those snaps, Warner led the 49ers with 12 total tackles, 11 solo. He had one tackle for loss, one pass defended, one quarterback hit, and a forced fumble.
.@49ers @fred_warner is the new MIKE lber and the best rookie performance I saw in WK #1 wasn’t named Saquon not Sam. It was FRED, as in FRED Warner. Welcome to the @NFL #BaldyBreakdowns pic.twitter.com/RwHU8gaOnQ
— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) September 13, 2018
— Rob Lowder (@Rob_Lowder) September 9, 2018
— Rob Lowder (@Rob_Lowder) September 9, 2018
Warner made plays both against the run and the pass. If he continues to play like this, the 49ers will be forced to start him over Smith when Foster returns. IDP Guys writer Tyler Joseph (@ONUtyjo) agrees.
Warner followed up his debut with another double-digit tackle day against the Detroit Lions. Warner ended the game with 10 total tackles, eight solo. He also did well in pass coverage, helping to force an incompletion to seal the win for the 49ers. I will be interesting to see if Warner starts next to Foster next week and how they will play together. Foster and Warner could be an elite tandem in the NFL.
They didn’t get a whole lot of help down the stretch from the offense, but they held on. Good pass rush from Armstead on fourth downs and Fred Warner in pass coverage https://t.co/oj3JPtn5RL
— David Lombardi (@LombardiHimself) September 16, 2018
While the 49ers have a talented middle linebacker in Reuben Foster, they did not have much else. Malcolm Smith was once a promising young linebacker that has been on a downhill slide. Thus, the 49ers drafted Fred Warner. Warner excelled in pass coverage in college but has demonstrated the ability to stop the run as a 49er. With Foster suspended for the first two games of the NFL season, Warner has a chance to make an impression. In his debut against the Minnesota Vikings, Warner made his best argument to be a starter when Foster returns.
If Warner forces his way into the starting lineup, he will be extremely valuable as an IDP. The cat may be out of the bag at this point, but if he is available in your leagues, pick him up as fast as you can.