The San Francisco 49ers had high hopes when they selected former BYU linebacker Fred Warner in the 2018 NFL Draft. How has he performed so far his rookie season?
Eleven weeks into the 2018 season, the San Francisco 49ers have received better-than above-average performances from two of their nine selections from this year’s NFL Draft, offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey and linebacker Fred Warner.
McGlinchey, the Niners’ first overall pick from this year’s draft, is already living up to the top-10 billing status. Warner, however, didn’t carry quite as high an investment after being selected in Round 3, No. 70 overall.
Through 11 weeks of the season, we’ve seen both good and bad things from the BYU rookie. On a positive note, he leads San Francisco’s defense with 77 tackles, which is more than double that of the next player on the list, defensive tackle Arik Armstead (33). But tackles made is generally an indication of only one thing — a high number merely indicates a player is around the ball a lot.
In most cases, this is good. He’s impacting the stat sheet.
Warner has performed well in this category. And by most accounts, he’ll be a staple of San Francisco’s defense going forward.
But let’s dive a little deeper and evaluate both the positives and negatives from Warner’s game so far this season, trying to project what we might expect in 2019 and beyond.
Warner was immediately placed into the MIKE linebacker spot out of the gate. This position is responsible for calling the plays in the huddle, and there’s a good deal to learn by doing so.
After getting off to a red-hot start against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 1, where he registered a quarterback hit, a forced fumble and one pass breakup, Warner suffered an elongated slump between Weeks 2 through 7.
One of the key issues here was missed tackles. During that stretch, he missed seven of his 10 total missed tackles on the year. That number ranks second on the team behind his linebacking partner, Reuben Foster (12), according to Pro Football Focus.
And Warner doesn’t have the shoulder-injury excuse Foster has carried with him all year long.
On top of that, Warner’s coverage skills — his best asset at BYU — also took a hit during this six-game stretch. Averaged together, his PFF pass-coverage grade was a mere 54.1.
Despite the shortcomings, Warner has some easy-to-understand explanations for his rookie slump after Week 1.
For starters, he’s no longer matching up against smaller, slower running backs and tight ends. The level of competition is higher now, and there are going to be some obvious learning curves and adjustments. Plus, route trees get far more complex at the NFL level, meaning Warner’s pass-coverage skills were all but certain to go through some growing pains.
It seems like that has been the case. Over his past three games, albeit against sub-par competition, Warner’s pass-coverage PFF grades have been 72.9, 75.3 and 76.8 in Weeks 9 through 11, respectively. And while his run-defense marks haven’t quite been close to his pass coverage, they’ve also shown improvement from the numerous spots where he was slumping earlier this season.
In other words, Warner’s stock continues to rise.
For a third-round pick, Warner is already showing the signs the 49ers made the right choice by selecting him. Warner hasn’t been assisted by the numerous injuries San Francisco has had this season, particularly Foster’s absences, which have hindered the two from developing a much-needed working chemistry.
That said, Warner has flashed enough both in pass protection and against the run to suggest he’ll be a worthwhile piece in the Niners defense.
The 49ers asked Warner to step in and fill a vital role within the defense right out of the gate. Sure, there were some early issues and miscues. But overall, the arrow is still pointing in the right direction.
With a full year nearly under his belt, one can only think Warner will wind up being a staple of San Francisco’s defense for a long, long time.
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