Fred Warner was the most impactful linebacker in the NFL in 2019.
I don’t want to dress that up with qualifications, clarifications, or caveats—he just was. He was a third-round pick out of BYU in 2018, and in 2019, no linebacker in the NFL mattered more to their defense and created more impact plays than Warner. The further he gets from a modest draft capital and quiet college career, the closer he’ll get to the national recognition he deserves.
Warner immediately calls to mind another product of Utah’s college program; another Day 2 linebacker lost behind the flashier names at his position until suddenly, the national eye turned on the work of his career and realized just how ridiculous, obnoxiously, unbelievably good he was: Bobby Wagner.
Wagner and Warner are two of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL, with perhaps only Eric Kendricks and K.J. Wright lobbying worthy claims to join their tier (I would be remiss if I didn’t, at this point, bring up Wagner’s relatively poor 2019 season. It happened, but it’s okay—he’s been dominant here for years. And he still led the NFL in tackles). Both Wagner and Warner are not only tasked with a shocking amount of responsibility in pass coverage, but are stupid athletes with next-gen processors to make plays that linebackers simply do not, should not, cannot make in the league.
But, as we said at the top, Warner was the most impactful linebacker in the NFL in 2019—not Wagner. Luke Kuechly and Demario Davis and Lavonte David were all up there, but Warner was just so ridiculously good, that he was better than all of them.
Warner’s zone spacing and route recognition are elite. He’s one of the best middle of the field zone defenders in the NFL, regardless of position—he makes as many impact plays as the league’s best safeties. And it makes sense.
At BYU, Warner played a quasi-safety role, flexing out over slot receivers and lining up anywhere eight-to-nine yards off the ball to read from short zones. With 235 pounds strapped onto his 6-foot-3 frame, Warner never had great density, and would at times struggle to survive against the run—so the Cougars did their best to keep him out of traditional stack LB alignments. In San Francisco, the Niners have found a way to get Warner’s elite coverage traits at a critical position in their defensive structure, while remaining sound against the run.
They let Warner play fast. So fast. They’ve even sacrificed some of the checks typically given to the MIKE linebacker in DC Robert Saleh’s defense with the intention of giving Warner less work pre-snap so that he can be ready to fly at the snap. This allows Warner to play ahead of blocks, working behind an elite defensive line to shoot into gaps with velocity and either uproot blockers with power or finish tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
You’ll notice across here that Warner isn’t lacking for power—dude can run and hit. Despite his lack of density, Warner packs a good punch and is able to play among the trees. What looked like a potential liability coming out of BYU has turned not only into a manageable skill, but a plus trait.
Again, what matters here isn’t Warner’s play against the run. It’s great, no doubt—he can track Kyler Murray or slip blocking schemes—but all that matters is he’s good enough to get on the field for running downs and still contribute. It’s what allows him to be on the field in coverage.
And this is where he made the impact that no other linebacker did.
Saleh is of the Seattle coaching tree, and for his first two seasons in San Francisco, he tried to run the Seattle defense: over/under fronts, two-gapping defensive ends, single-high safeties. It didn’t work: it’s easy to forget that the 2018 San Francisco defense had only two interceptions for the entire season. So Saleh did what so few coaches do: he changed things. In 2019, the Niners widened their ends and kept them in one-gapping responsibilities—get upfield and rush!—pulling the SAM linebacker off-ball and giving the 49ers three second-level box defenders in base.
This change meant the world to the Niners’ pass coverage. It allowed Saleh to start a down with two-high safeties, instead of immediately pushing a safety in the box to add to the underneath zones. By not declaring safety rotation until after the snap, Saleh was free to play more split-field coverages in tandem with his traditional Cover 3 (and variants) approach.
In this array of zone-match coverages, tremendous stress is put on Warner to define and relate to common route concepts coming out of bunch formations, pre-snap motion, empty sets, and the remaining gamut of offensive gadgets that give defenses fits. As such, on any given play, Warner may be tasked with man coverage over Marquise Brown, the 4.3 speedster slot receiver from Baltimore.
Or, following pre-snap motion and play-action, have to tag WR Tre’Quan Smith on a weak flood concept opposite the run action for which he is also responsible.
Consider on both of these plays the athletic ability it takes to stay in phase with NFL wide receivers, the poise necessary to flip your hips and eyes back to the quarterback while also relating to the receiver after his break, and the mental processing necessary to read body language while you’re bailing and anticipate the route break altogether.
This is not regular. It is atypical and otherworldly. I hate it.
The Rams are the absolute worst team in the NFL to play as a middle-of-the-field zone defender—they break your brain with heavy play-action and a variety of crossers. The Niners stifled them in Week 6 largely because of Warner. The Rams tried to hi-low him on multiple occasions, and Warner regularly denied the first route that Jared Goff wanted, and in rhythm with the quarterback, came off the first read to close on the second read, leading to pressure, incompletions, and sacks.
These are more true zone spot-dropping reps, but nothing is a true zone rep with Warner. He is constantly calibrating to the quarterback with a shocking sense for what is developing behind him. For Warner to be as comfortable with the timing of NFL speed and common concepts in just his second season foreshadows what could be a career of truly magical plays. What Kuechly was closing in to the line of scrimmage for the majority of the 2010s, Warner can be sinking away from it in the 2020s.
The Niners wanted to put four zone defenders over three receivers to the strong side, put three over two to the weakside, and get pressure with their four down linemen. In order to do that, your short-zone defenders in the hook/curl zones have to be able to read and relate to multiple route stems. You cannot spot-drop in the modern NFL, and it’s Warner’s ability to take away multiple routes that allows the Niners to play zone and win.
But pressure with four is rarely enough, even with a defensive line like San Francisco’s. But their blitz game was once again made possible by a quality CB1 in Richard Sherman, good safety depth and interchangeability, and the skeleton key in the middle of the field: Warner. He’s an effective blitzer, but with his man coverage ability and route recognition against considered, Warner denies hot routes and shallow-breakers immediately after the snap, which gives the blitz enough time to develop.
Saleh said of 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.”
He was right, and in a year or two, hopefully, the rest of the league will agree.