To give you an idea about the “rise of Fred Warner,” heading into the 2018 season, we had a poll question on Niners Nation asking who will play more snaps, Warner, or Malcolm Smith? Heading into the 2020 season, we’re asking who the best linebacker in the NFL, Warner, or Eric Kendricks is?
Progression. That’s what you want to see from your players. Warner was targeted one less time in 2019 than in 2018. He allowed 21 fewer yards and a passer rating that was five points better. Across the board, Warner’s stats improved. From air yards to yards after the catch, you name it. Even as a blitzer, Warner was better. He blitzed 15 fewer times in 2019 but has more pressures and sacks. Warner also got his first taste of the postseason, and he didn’t disappoint.
I believe Warner is the best coverage linebacker in the NFL. 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. His best plays in coverage came when he wasn’t targeted, though.
Age: 23 (turns 24 on November 19th)
Experience: Two accrued seasons
Weight: 236 lbs.
Warner is entering the third year of a four-year rookie contract. His cap number is just over $1 million in 2020. I imagine this will be the last season the 49ers can get away with that. It won’t be too long before Warner becomes one of the highest-paid linebackers in the NFL.
Where he can improve in 2020
Warner’s missed tackle rate needs to improve. His increased 3% last year. Not all missed tackles are the same, but Warner will leave his feet, and that’s the reason he misses. If he has consistent form, he’ll be fine.
Here is what Warner said himself on where he can improve:
For myself, there were a couple of plays I could’ve made in that game to maybe help us a little more. A big thing I’m working on this offseason is taking better angles to the football. I left a lot of plays out on the field in terms of tackling this past season. I’m just kind of working on that and capitalizing on plays that I missed last season.
Warner also went from the ninth-most run stops to 17th, though I’d take the trade-off with his improvement in coverage.
What to expect in 2020
Warner didn’t just improve in coverage; he catapulted himself to the top of the NFL. His safety background showed up several times a game in coverage. He’s comfortable in space and doesn’t fall for basic route combinations. Assuming Warner’s angles and missed tackles improve, why won’t he become a superstar in 2020? He can cover the best tight ends. He can cover slot receivers. In zone coverage, he gains ground, unlike any other linebacker that’s not his teammate. Warner is superb, and he’ll only improve with the more he plays. What I’m expecting in 2020 is for Warner’s stats to follow his 2019 production, and the rest of the NFL will acknowledge what we all saw last year.