It wasn’t all doom-and-gloom for the franchise, though. One player who made great strides and gained attention from around the NFL is middle linebacker Fred Warner. The 24-year-old was named an AP first-team All-Pro for his efforts.
The Niners took Warner in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft. From finishing 4-12 in his rookie season to making it all the way to the Super Bowl in 2019, he has experienced both highs and lows during his short time dealing with last year’s injury-filled season in the league.
It was a breakout season for Warner. He finished with 125 tackles (five for a loss), seven QB hits, two interceptions, and a sack. Warner’s coverage skills are on another level. Pro Football Focus gave him a 91.1 grade in coverage, tops of any linebacker in the league.
He only gave up 4.4 yards per target, and opposing QBs had a 69.7 rating when throwing in Warner’s direction. That’s a stark improvement from the 91.8 rating QBs had when going after Warner in the passing game during his rookie year.
Warner’s position coach last season, Dameco Ryans, will be San Francisco’s defensive coordinator next season after Robert Saleh took the head coaching job with the New York Jets. The 49ers’ defense will have a ton of returning players. General manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan inked several of their own free agents to new deals and will have most of the pieces in place from the defense that dominated in 2019. The major loss from that group came just before the 2020 NFL Draft when DeForest Buckner was shipped to the Indianapolis Colts for a first-round pick. The Niners used that selection on defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw.
But Warner has remained one of the centerpieces of the unit. Because of his standout play, Warner’s cap hit will climb from $844,000 to just over $3.3 million due to the league’s proven performance escalator program. The NFL rewards players selected in the third round or later if their performance exceeds their draft positioning.
Warner has spent three years in the league, so he is now eligible for what should be a lucrative extension.
The five-highest paid inside linebackers in the NFL are;
Bobby Wagner ($18 million AAV)
C.J. Mosley ($17 million AAV)
Zach Cunningham ($14.5 million AAV)
Myles Jack ($14.25 million AAV)
Deion Jones ($14.25 million AAV)
Given his play, Warner should be in line to be amongst the top three. The NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported this week that timing would be key for the two sides to make a deal. Darius Leonard of the Indianapolis Colts will get a big raise this offseason, so it will be interesting to see where he and Warner fit among the highest paid linebackers in the league.
The Niners have done a great job of shuffling things around this offseason to maintain some more cap flexibility moving forward. After signing their incoming rookies, the 49ers should have roughly $11 million in cap space per Over the Cap.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has said he hopes stadiums will be operating at full capacity next season, which will help the league’s bottom line, and in turn, will give teams some more money to work with.
If stadiums are full, the salary cap should jump back up for the 2022 campaign, which will help give Lynch some more wiggle room when it comes to Warner’s extension. The NFL’s new TV deals kick in for the 2023 season, and that should provide a big boost in future years. The 49ers will have tight end George Kittle’s massive extension taking up some more room. Kittle’s cap hit will climb from just over $5.4 million in 2021 to $16.1 million in 2022.
Pass-rusher Nick Bosa will also be eligible for a new deal after next season, and considering how dominant he is, the Niners will have to break the bank to keep him.
The 49ers have Paraag Marathe as their salary cap guru and hope he can work his magic to retain Warner and Bosa.
How much do you think Warner’s next contract will be worth? Will he become the highest-paid linebacker in the NFL?