The San Francisco 49ers spoiled us in 2019 on both sides of the ball. From the pass rush to the team speed, there was an embarrassment of riches, and that’s why the Niners won both NFC playoff matchups convincingly en route to the Super Bowl. The 49ers defense was as complete of a unit as you’ll see. A big reason for San Francisco’s success was the development of second-year linebacker Fred Warner.
Warner finished 2019 with 42 “stops,” which was good enough for 17th among linebackers. What that tells us is Warner had a knack for being around the football. In today’s NFL, a linebacker doesn’t have to be a dominant run defender. Make a few stops here and there and thrive in coverage since that’s where the value is. Luckily for Warner, coverage is what makes the former BYU Cougar special. Warner finished fifth in pass breakups among linebackers. Here is the problem with referencing volume stats, though. Warner had one fewer pass breakup than Seattle’s K.J. Wright, who saw 99 targets. Warner was targeted 78 times. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Warner would have had at least one pass breakup with an additional 21 targets.
Why Warner excelled
The days of “spot dropping” in zone coverage are gone. Now, zone defenders must “relate” to a wide receiver. The change has been difficult for many underneath defenders at every level of football. Warner is not one of them. While Warner only had one interception, he had two passes on the road against Arizona and Atlanta that hit him between the numbers, and Warner dropped both of those throws. Warner is always in a position to make a play because he knows how to relate to a receiver. More importantly, Warner doesn’t “fall for the cheese” that offenses put out there to confuse defenses.
The following play is simple on the surface, but the recognition is why Warner, to me, is the best coverage linebacker in the NFL. The Rams try and high/low Warner. He reacts to the underneath route without overcommitting. Warner then takes the second route where the receiver runs a deeper route over the middle without any hesitation.
That awareness from Warner is unlike anything you’ll see. Warner is pointing during the second part of the clip. His pre-snap communication ensured the 49ers’ defenders were always on the same page and knew what was coming during the season.
Warner’s recognition is top-notch. It’s natural to remember the handful of coverage busts the 49ers had in 2019, but compared to the rest of the league, those happened few and far between. Tampa Bay is a prime example of Warner baiting the quarterback and showing off his range. He’d sink with the deeper routes, and let the quarterback check throws down to the running back. That happened on a 2nd & 10; Warner made the tackle. It’s 3rd & 6, and we saw how that turned out for opposing offenses last year. On the play below, he’s daring the quarterback to throw the ball:
“Find work” is a phrase that’s popular among position coaches. As a linebacker, you’re not doing yourself or your teammates any favors by staring at the quarterback and not relating to a receiver. On the play above, each Tampa Bay wideout runs deep, leaving Warner in no-mans land. Instead of staying put, Warner “finds work” and relates to the running back coming out of the backfield for a would-be big-hit.
“Athleticism matters in athletics”
Warner’s athleticism shouldn’t go unnoticed. At 236 pounds, Warner ran a 4.64 40-yard dash, jumped 38.5” in the vertical, and ran a 6.9 3-cone drill. He’s an above-average athlete, and you can tell when Warner is lining up against receivers. You usually see a linebacker with high-end athleticism or football smarts, but not both. When you combine the two, you get Warner. We’ll use two clips from the Ravens game.
It’s 4th & 5 against Baltimore. The score is even up at 17 in the fourth quarter, and the defense desperately needs a stop. Film study will tell you the Ravens are going to run some route at the sticks. Even when you know it’s coming, holding your ground as a receiver is running full speed at you is a lot easier said than done. Below, Warner remains flat-footed, catches the tight end as he reaches five yards, and has the athleticism to react, undercut the route, and make a play:
In a word: Superb. Warner not giving ground allows him to undercut the route and make a play. His margin for error is so slim on this play, and that’s what makes it so impressive.
The next pass breakup came against one of the faster receivers in the NFL, Hollywood Brown. If you told someone that the play below happened, the probability of them believing you isn’t great:
Warner changing directions at the top of the route and having the awareness to get his eyes back to the quarterback while undercutting Brown’s route is the reason I’m writing about Warner. These are unique plays for the greatest players in the game, let alone a second-year linebacker.
We’ve seen Warner make plays going backward and side to side, but Fred’s a complete coverage linebacker due to his ability to make plays coming downhill as well. Warner got a gift from Jared Goff in Week 16. That was his reward for dropping an interception the week before against Atlanta. Warner’s speed shows up when it comes to screens. This play against the Packers is a great example:
Warner recognizes the screen pass before the lineman crosses the line of scrimmage. That’s unreal processing from Warner. His speed helps him finish the play, but it’s Warner’s recognition that put him in position.
Warner didn’t have the volume stats this year, so he didn’t receive the recognition he deserved. With teams throwing the ball 30-40 times a game, we need to put less emphasis on “tackle” and more emphasis on coverage. It’s tough to quantify the plays where the quarterback doesn’t throw the ball—like the Rams example above— and that may prevent Warner from getting the recognition he truly deserves.
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said this about Warner:
“Fred Warner is the quarterback of this defense. Anything I need done on the field, that’s the guy that gets it done. I cannot lose him.”
Warner made plays in Week 1, and he made plays in the Super Bowl. From start to finish, there wasn’t a better coverage linebacker in the NFL when you factor in every play. When you’re around the ball as much as Warner, it’s easy to assume the “stats” will follow in Year 3.