Heading into the 2018 season, expectations for rookie LB Fred Warner were next to nothing. In last years poll, the question was who would play more snaps, Warner or Malcolm Smith? Warner ended up playing 98% of the defensive snaps. Reuben Foster played one more snap than Smith. We argue over silly things during the offseason, but players separate themselves in camp. That’s what happened with Warner.
Tackles are an overrated stat. “Stops”—tackles that constitute a loss for an offense— matter. Last year Warner had the ninth most stops out of all linebackers in the league. That’s what you want. You can tell Warner studies the game the way he sniffs plays out. Because of his awareness, he’s going to be suitable for a long time.
Will good be good enough? If the San Francisco 49ers are going to make the playoffs, some defender not named Bosa/Ford/Sherman will need to emerge. The Cowboys got that in Leighton Vander Esch last year, and he transformed the defense. You can say the same with Derwin James and the Chargers. Warner is good, but he’ll need to be even better moving forward. He should be.
Age: 22 (turns 23 on November 19th)
Experience: One year
Weight: 236 lbs.
Warner is in the second year of his rookie deal. His cap number for 2019 is $915,684. Warner is the 49th highest-paid inside linebacker in the NFL.
Where he can improve in 2019
I mentioned the number of stops Warner had as a rookie. Upping the percentage of run stops is a good goal. Warner was at 8.5% last year, per PFF. For reference, rookie Darius Leonard was at 9.8%, while Vander Esch was at a ridiculous 11.5%. The next step for Warner is becoming a playmaker.
Missed tackles don’t bother me as much as others. I put them in the same bag as drops for wide receivers. We put too much emphasis on them. After watching the 49ers defense a year ago, everyone knows the tackling must improve. Warner missed a tackle on 13.9% of his attempts as a rookie, per FootballOutsiders. Again, if we want him to be in that upper tier, that’s whom we’ll reference. Vander Esch was at 6.6%, while Leonard was at 9.5%. Warner should be looking to get his number under double-digits.
Warner’s awareness doesn’t just show up against the run. He’s excellent in coverage as well. To go from very good to great, you have to take the ball away. That’s the next step for Warner’s development. He limited yards after the catch. He was next level at breaking passes up. Vander Esch was targeted 87 times. Leonard 90 times. Warner 69 times. LVE had four pass breakups, while the other two had six. Warner was one of the most productive linebackers in coverage last year. Now he needs to catch one of those targets.
What to expect in 2019
Warner can improve in 2019 without becoming a star. We’ll save that for his third season. I think the added pass-rush will benefit Warner. Whether it’s able to get an interception off a tipped pass by Deforest Buckner, or the QB sdoesn’t see him step in front of a receiver because he was hurried by one of the edge rushers.
Expecting a jump from Warner is something we talked about last week. He was always going to have high expectations this year. If above seems like I’m asking too much of Warner, it’s because he’s capable of getting to another level. He can be that good.