It took a while, but the media and the NFL have come around to San Francisco 49ers linebacker Fred Warner being the best in the business. On Thursday, Dre Greenlaw said playing alongside Warner is like having a defensive coordinator on the field.
Speaking of Greenlaw, Niner's defensive coordinator Robert Saleh was asked how good Dre is at this point:
“Dre has got a chance; he’s got a chance to be really, really, really good. Darn near special. Obviously, there’s always going to be things that he can clean up. There’s going to be little nuances that we feel like, and he will admit that he can get better at, that may not be seen by the naked eye or the fan, but he’s got to continue to work.
The deliberateness in which he works, that entire linebacker room, they’re so close-knit in the way they operate and the way they communicate with one another. Like I said, DeMeco does such a great job with that group.
So, he’s got a chance. He hasn’t even scratched the surface yet of what he’s going to be three, four years from now. So, he’s special. His tackling ability, his speed, and his range is up there with anyone. As he sees more and more plays and as his football IQ continues to increase, he’s only going to get better.”
I’ve been critical of Greenlaw’s play this season as I feel like he hasn’t been consistent in his aggressiveness or angles, and it’s led to some missed tackles. Greenlaw’s ceiling and skill are obvious to anyone who has watched a 49er game since 2019. For Dre, it’s about making every play look the same. I asked Greenlaw on Thursday what he needs to do to reach his ceiling as a player:
“Like coach say, know your why. It’s about formation recognition before the snap. Fred does a good job where he sees something and knows what to expect. Me just kinda playing off instincts a little bit, but I need to make sure I’m where I’m supposed to be when things are going fast. When you get tired of running down the field on the next play, can you do it again? Those are the things that it takes to do if you want to be like All-Pro Freddy.”
My follow-up was how Kwon Alexander helped Greenlaw as a player. Dre spoke about Kwon’s confidence and energy and how it made everyone on the defense want to match that. He said, “before you know it, everyone on the team was flexing and yelling ‘Hot Boys,’ so it was a real honor to play with someone like Kwon Alexander.”
Back to “All-Pro Freddy,” who’s having a decent season. Saleh had plenty of praise for Warner, who is set to receive a healthy extension this offseason that should make him the highest-paid linebacker in football.
“I think he’s getting the media recognition. What he’s transformed into over the last three years is remarkable. In college, he basically played nickel. He comes here as a rookie, and we put him behind the ball at MIKE linebacker to make all the checks. So, he’s seeing things for the first time in a long time with regards to football. Behind the ball, all the reads are different. The feel is different, and then on top of that, we’re asking him to make all the checks.
Last year, I thought he had a phenomenal season for a second-year player where he was still able to play at a high level. I don’t think he got enough credit a year ago because of the fact that our front four just stole the show every single game, but the things that he did and the way he gets us lined up, it’s [former NFL QB] Peyton Manning-like in what they did for, from an offensive perspective, just as a comparative measure. Now this year, now that he’s got a third year behind the ball, he’s only getting more and more comfortable behind the ball.
He’s seeing more and more concepts, formations being put in different situations. And again, he’s only going to get better. So, I will be biased and say that he is by far, by far the best middle linebacker in football. It’s not even close, in my opinion. With what he does and what we ask him to do and his energy, his positive energy, his leadership, his off the field stuff, you can’t make them like that, not very often anyway.”
We talked about Warner on this website for the majority of ‘19 and during the offseason. Some felt like it was too early to crown Warner, but his success was overlooked because of how dominant the front four were all year.
This season, it’s been the opposite. There isn’t a dominant presence upfront, which has allowed us to appreciate Warner’s greatness. We’ve seen Warner make plays in coverage, fight through blocks to make tackles in the backfield, and pressure the QB as a blitzer. Warner can become a cleaner, more sure tackler, but complaining about Warner’s tackling is like complaining about a superstar running back that can’t pass protect. You’ll take those trade-offs.