Fred Warner is worth every penny 49ers gave him

Fred Warner #54 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Fred Warner #54 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) /
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SF 49ers, Green Bay Packers
Fred Warner #54 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images) /

Fred Warner’s game-breaking ability

This is what really matters to the 49ers, even if the other two traits have value.

Fred Warner broke the off-ball linebacker market because he does things other off-ball linebackers are incapable of doing, and he does them at a high level.

Warner’s counting stats, while exceptional, actually underrate his ability because the generic stats people go towards for off-ball linebackers are volume-dependent. To be able to register a tackle, you need to be in the vicinity the ball is caught or ran towards. Warner’s lower tackle count is indicative not of his lack of ability, but rather his exceptional coverage ability.

Nearly all off-ball linebackers who are worth their salt can fill run gaps and shoot the hole, diagnosing plays and tackling carriers. But that’s no longer what makes a linebacker good. Coverage ability is what determines whether a linebacker should be paid.

The 49ers, in their core defensive scheme under former coordinator Robert Saleh, are a Seattle Seahawks-type Cover 3 team. This scheme minimizes defense on the outside, expecting the corners to be able to take the sidelines without much safety help and furthermore expecting the single-high free safety to erase any mistakes. That allows the defensive to overload the short and intermediate middle of the field, where a linebacker typically roams.

This is what the 49ers typically ran.

However, last year, Saleh moved heavily away from the Cover 3 system into more quarters or Cover 2 looks. In this case, both safeties stay upfield, and the intermediate middle no longer has the same overload.

This breakdown from Bleacher Report’s Matt Bowen helps visualize and explain this idea.

This shift was caused in part by a need for more defensive pressure beyond the front four, because of injuries, as well as a shift towards maximizing the secondary of the 49ers, but it worked primarily because of one man: Warner.

San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco 49ers /

San Francisco 49ers

Warner’s coverage abilities allowed him to functionally seal off the middle of the field, erasing a key aspect of the quarterback’s game. This wasn’t just against running backs and linebackers either; this would be against wide receivers as well.

By being able to take away so much of an offense’s game plan with just one player, Saleh could focus heavily on the outside with his coverages and support other players. Much like a star edge rusher allows a defensive coordinator to get away with only rushing four players, Warner allowed Saleh to shift his coverages.

Advanced stats back up this idea Warner’s coverage was beyond the wildest expectations for a linebacker. Warner was the fourth-best coverage player in the NFL, per Next Gen stats (h/t

Not the fourth-best linebacker, the fourth-best overall.

That’s unfathomable production from the position. He allowed only a 64.1 passer rating when thrown at along with a catch rate 16.8 percent below expectation. Again, as a linebacker.

Warner has not been given as many opportunities to rush the passer, but his blitzing ability is also quality, providing another wrinkle for the 49ers to use next year. But, Warner is worth every penny because he fundamentally changes the way an offense can attack the 49ers and how the defense can get set up.

He transcends his position.

There are few players who are good enough to warrant breaking contractual norms. Warner is one of them. There are only a handful of NFL players capable of fundamentally changing the complexion of a game by their mere presence, and the 49ers just locked up one of them for the forseeable future.

Next. Ranking 49ers' 10 best late-round NFL Draft picks in team history. dark