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Breaking down LB Fred Warner’s impressive rookie season

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Outside of tackle Mike McGlinchey, was linebacker Fred Warner the best 49ers’ rookie this past season?

NFL: Detroit Lions at San Francisco 49ers Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

“He [linebacker Fred Warner] played extremely well and was very consistent, and that’s all you can ask for in a young player,“ is what former 49ers’ linebacker Patrick Willis said in an interview earlier this week.

One of most beloved 49ers’ players offering high praise for a rookie has got to be exciting for a fan base that’s dealt with numerous exits at the linebacking position. Starting with the retirement of Willis and linebacker Chris Borland to the decline of linebacker NaVorro Bowman and the surprise release of Reuben Foster, the 49ers haven’t been particularly lucky at this position over the past few years.

Yet, with their third-round selection in 2017, GM John Lynch selected BYU’s Fred Warner to pair alongside Foster for the foreseeable future. Instead, a two-game suspension to Foster and eventual release led to the rise of the rookie.

Warner finished the season 12th in the NFL with 124 tackles, and forced one fumble this past season. His sideline-to-sideline athleticism, sure-handed tackling, and ability to play well in pass coverage has put him at the forefront of the top young linebackers. Let’s break down some highlights from this season to see Warner’s strong play and where he could use some work heading into year two.

In his debut at Minnesota, Warner had himself a heckuva game, forcing a fumble on this play against Vikings’ running back Dalvin Cook. The best part of this play is that Warner comes flying from behind to punch the ball out.

Once again, Warner’s speed and burst through the line of scrimmage is evident, as he’s able to wrap up Cook for a loss on the play here. The former BYU linebacker is showing off his vision here, as he’s able to blow past the Vikings’ offensive linemen.

Now, in pass coverage, Warner’s covering the middle of the field in a zone defense and immediately brings down wideout Stefon Diggs after the catch — not giving up any yards after the reception.

Against the Lions, Warner shows off his ability to tackle a larger back in LeGarrette Blount. The 49ers’ rookie shoots the gap and brings Blount down with relative ease.

With Warner’s run-tackling skills on display, let’s move to his coverage ability — whether it be running backs out of the backfield or receivers in the slot. First up, against the Chiefs, Warner’s matched up against ex-Chief running back Kareem Hunt. The 49ers’ linebacker stays in Hunt’s hip pocket, not letting him catch the pass from quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

Not only can Warner cover running backs, but he’s also great with receivers in the slot, as evidenced by this play from the game against the Raiders. Warner’s now in coverage against wideout Seth Roberts and the rookie is able to deflect quarterback Derek Carr’s pass away for the incompletion.

When the 49ers hosted the Giants on Monday Night Football, Warner played with an extra edge — especially when he lined up against wideout Odell Beckham Jr. Early in the second quarter, there was a play that ended with a Warner deflection and a little bit of trash talking. It showed that the rookie wasn’t afraid of the big moment on the big stage against one of the faces of the NFL.

Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and the 49ers’ defensive coaching staff have no fear playing Warner late in close games. Once again, he’s in coverage against Beckham Jr. and is able to come up with the deflection.

For a rookie, Warner came into the 49ers’ building, took on the MIKE linebacker role, called out all the defensive signals and became the future of the defense, alongside DL DeForest Buckner. Heading into his second season, Warner’s going to have to work on getting stronger and continue to develop his mental game. His tackling ability — both in run and pass coverage — has been exemplary and hopefully carries over into his sophomore season.