SF 49ers need to lock up Fred Warner long term

San Francisco 49ers Fred Warner (54)Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
San Francisco 49ers Fred Warner (54)Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports /

With the SF 49ers linebacker making a case for being the best in the league, it’s time to discuss a long-term contract for Fred Warner.

There are a lot of reasons for fans of the SF 49ers to feel disappointed about the 2020 season.

The team has collapsed, almost literally, since falling apart in the final minutes of the Super Bowl last February, and injuries began to pile up starting during the abbreviated training camp. The defending NFC champs are looking like a longshot to even return to the playoffs this season.

And then there’s the question of whether a certain quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, has regressed or simply been another casualty of the injury bug, although his current status means the first option isn’t as much in the conversation.

Not to mention the defense, among the best in the NFL, has probably been hit the hardest with the injuries, losing key players like EDGE Nick Bosa and cornerback Richard Sherman for what has essentially been the entire season so far, with no relief in sight, especially for Bosa.

Yet in the midst of all the agony and players succumbing to injuries like it’s their job, there has been a shining star: SF 49ers middle linebacker Fred Warner is playing like an All-Pro in 2020.

Warner was drafted in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft, as part of a group that, outside of the linebacker, is looking worse and worse as time goes on.

Two of those players — wide receiver Dante Pettis and defensive tackle Jullian Taylor — were released this week, while others like tackle Mike McGlinchey, safeties Tarvarius Moore and Marcell Harris, and defensive end Kentavius Street are anywhere from unknowns as long-term members of the squad or outright swings and misses by the front office.

And yet Warner has improved every season and now has himself set among the top players at his position in the NFL.

With the recent trade of linebacker Kwon Alexander to the Saints, the SF 49ers were able to free up some much-needed cap space, not only for this season as the injuries mount and practice squad players are elevated to the active roster on a weekly basis, but for the next few years.

Warner will be entering 2021 on the final year of his rookie contract and is scheduled to make just over $1.2 million for that season, according to Over the Cap. As of right now, that would make him just the 17th highest-paid player out of the 34 currently under contract on the SF 49ers for 2021.

There’s no doubt Warner has earned not only a pay raise but some long-term stability. Much like the situation with tight end George Kittle last offseason, there’s no reason the former BYU linebacker should have to play another snap on that rookie deal once the 2020 season is finished.

Warner’s total contract value is about $50 million less than the current highest-paid middle linebacker in terms of average per year, the Seattle Seahawks’ Bobby Wagner, who signed his contract extension in 2019 and is set to be a free agent after 2022.

But the total number isn’t nearly as high as the NY Jets’ C.J. Mosley, who signed an $85 million free-agent deal in 2019 and has played in just two games since, after injuries in 2019 and opting out of the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

And while Wagner is still considered the cream of the crop at the inside linebacker slot, Warner is quietly making his case to join that conversation.

And so the SF 49ers should be keen to keep Warner around beyond this season and should take some of the cap savings created by trading Alexander to jumpstart the discussion with Warner and his representatives.

Given the unknowns about the salary cap moving forward, the mathematical gymnastics of chief contracts negotiator Paarag Marathe will be on full display for this one, but Warner should hopefully understand the situation and should see a good chunk of guaranteed cash in exchange for pushing the bulk of his salary into the later years of the deal.

But in a year where Bosa and Sherman have been out most of the season and other players haven’t fulfilled their potential, Warner has stepped up in a big way.

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The SF 49ers should reward him for his hard work and dedication to make himself into one of the best linebackers in the NFL.