SF 49ers: Why extending All-Pro Fred Warner will be challenging

Fred Warner #54 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
Fred Warner #54 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images) /

One of the SF 49ers’ top priorities this offseason will be to extend their All-Pro linebacker, Fred Warner. But it’s not as simple as it sounds.

After the SF 49ers‘ 2020 campaign officially concluded, general manager John Lynch told reporters linebacker Fred Warner was “a big part of the fabric of this team” and the Niners would “find a way to keep him here.”

It’s a no-brainer. Warner, with due respect to EDGE Nick Bosa, is San Francisco’s best defender and a cornerstone piece around which to build.

Warner, the third-round pick from the 2018 NFL Draft, enters the final season of his rookie deal in 2021 and is eligible to engage in contract-extension talks once the league new year commences.

There are some clear obstacles in the way, however. First and foremost, the 2021 salary cap is expected to drop as low as $176 million, leaving the SF 49ers with an estimated $22.6 million in cap space, according to Over the Cap. With nearly 40 other players hitting some form of free agency this offseason, a number of them high-profile names, Lynch and Co. will have to think awfully carefully about how they want to spend their resources.

True, there are ways the Niners can engineer more cap room. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is one option to move, and that would free up $24.1 million in space, although that alone would leave a massive void at the game’s most important position, opening up one of any other possibilities under center.

Not all of them good.

On top of that, Warner could be inclined not to step on the field until he receives a new deal. While technically under contract through 2021, he’s only scheduled to make $1.23 million next season. It doesn’t take a lot of thinking to realize San Francisco has gotten more than its money’s worth out of Warner thus far. Yet Warner’s agent would be wise enough to advise him to hold out, even if newer league rules make elongated holdouts much more difficult from the player’s perspective.

SF 49ers won’t have Fred Warner for cheap

Warner was already one of the league’s up-and-coming linebackers in 2019, but 2020 solidified him as a star.

In addition to being named a Pro Bowler for the first time in his career, Warner also received first-team All-Pro accolades along with Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner.

Wagner, interestingly enough, is a player to whom many compare Warner. The former also received his first Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro nods in year three of his pro career back in 2014, which resulted in Wagner receiving a four-year, $43 million extension with an average annual value of $10.75 million.

Now, Wagner is playing on a three-year extension worth an annual value of $18 million, highest in the NFL at the position.

That’s getting into the range where Warner could be. And considering Warner just turned 24 years old, whereas Wagner is 30 years old, it’s a safe bet to assume the former resets the market for top-paid linebackers this offseason.

Of course, one of the ways the SF 49ers navigate extension talks could be to offer Warner more by the way of a backloaded contract, accounting for the small amount of cap room in 2021 and also spreading out a prorated signing bonus over the span of, let’s say, four more years. Warner and his agent would have to agree to that, though, and it’s just as possible they want more money up front instead of waiting for it down the line.

See how things get challenging?

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Regardless, it’s more than obvious Warner has emerged as a non-expendable piece for the Niners defense, and they’ll have all the need to retain him for the long run.

The only question will be about the financial resources required.