The San Francisco 49ers faced a big decision at linebacker this offseason following Reuben Foster’s two arrests. The situation is clearing itself up, but there was an expectation by many prior to the draft that they would make a sizable investment in the linebacker position. Roquan Smith and Tremaine Edmunds were the most common names mentioned, but when the 49ers did select a linebacker, it ended up Fred Warner as a third round pick.
If Foster is suspended for any period of time, Warner could slot into a significant role pretty quickly. But even if Foster is not suspended, or when he gets back on the field after a suspension, Warner brings a skillset the team does not necessarily have at linebacker.
The 49ers are giving Warner some time as a MIKE linebacker, but if Foster and Malcolm Smith are both available, the rookie is likely to make his bones in pass coverage. At BYU, Warner’s position was known as Flash, and was a hybrid linebacker, safety role. He could play more traditional linebacker work, including covering tight ends, but he had the speed and general athleticism to effectively serve as the nickel back moving out into the slot.
Through the first two weeks of OTAs, Warner has been serving primarily in the backup MIKE linebacker role. Reuben Foster worked into that role last season, but during his absence this year, Malcolm Smith has been the first string MIKE. Kyle Shanahan has said the team views MIKE and WILL as interchangeable with the former simply having more of a speaking role.
Shanahan said last week that Warner is a confident player which has allowed him to take to calling the plays from the MIKE position.
“He’s been very impressive out there. He’s a very smart guy, which you don’t always know if that’s going to be the case until you get someone because that doesn’t’ always translate to the field. He’s very smart and he plays like it on the field. He doesn’t hesitate. He’s a rookie out there, but he’s calling the plays maybe even too loud because I can hear him from the offensive side. But, he doesn’t mind speaking up. He’s confident in what he’s doing. It’s going to get a little bit harder for him as it goes and we’ll have to bring him back a little bit for training camp, but he’s had an impressive two days.”
On Wednesday, Saleh was asked about Warner’s work in the Flash position and how he would potentially translate from BYU to the 49ers. While his coverage was a strength, his his hand use was viewed as an issue. Saleh offered some optimism about where Warner is headed.
“That defensive structure doesn’t really translate to the things we do. One thing that has been very encouraging, because he’s played outside, you see glimpses of what he’d look like behind the ball. Because of the way offenses are played in college, you really never get to see him go through keys and feel those gaps, feel the run games and go through a process of what we ask our linebackers to go through. Early on, he’s shown really good heavy hands, which is a great pleasant surprise. Then, his ability to read and diagnose and do all of those things has been really, really good. Now he’s just got to continue to build, continue to take all of that information that we’re giving him and just keep going faster, faster and faster and start implementing. When pads come on, we’ll see. But, he’s been good so far.”
The 49ers could find themselves in a position of having all sorts of versatility for their nickel and dime defensive looks. Jimmie Ward can play all five defensive back roles in the nickel, and Warner could rotate between linebacker and DB type roles. I don’t think they’ll get too crazy with Warner right out of the gate, but with word that he is quick to pick things up, he could force himself into a fairly prominent role as a rookie.