General manager John Lynch took 6-foot-3, 236-pound linebacker Fred Warner out of Brigham Young University in the 3rd round of the 2018 NFL draft. The initial reaction by most was that this was a great fit in defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s 4-3 defense. He’s a speedy, smaller framed linebacker; “the modern linebacker” is what a player like Warner is getting called. Where does he fit on the 49ers defense?
First, I will explain the potential positions that he could play on this defense. Considering that the 49ers have called him a linebacker, the position of strong safety is out. There are three different linebacker positions on this defense: strong side linebacker, weakside linebacker, and middle linebacker. The strong side, or the “Sam,” was played mostly by Eli Harold last season. The Sam is a run-stopping linebacker on base downs (when the offense is in a 2-back, 1-tight end set) and a pass rusher on passing downs and nickel, or just isn’t on the field on passing downs. This isn’t an option for Warner. So that leaves two spots: the weakside linebacker, or the “Will,” and the middle linebacker, or the “Mike.”
Number 50 Brock Coyle is the Mike, starting on the strong side (the side of the offensive line that the tight end lines up on) with number 56 Reuben Foster lining up on the weak side, he is the Will. Number 35 Eric Reid is playing the strong safety. When the tight end motions to the opposite side of the formation, Reid moves off to cover the zone outside the numbers leaving the Mike and the Will to man the box.
The Will linebacker will have the curl/flat zone responsibilities, with the Mike linebacker hitting gaps that the defensive line leaves occupied. So it is generally thought that the Will needs to have more coverage ability than the Mike. But in today’s NFL both positions will be in coverage just as much as the Will is, attacking gaps to bottle up running backs. The modern day NFL linebacker needs to have the speed to cover tight ends and running backs, but the physicality to tackle running backs in between the tackles.
Obviously with an NFL linebacker, they need to be good at tackling. Nine times out of 10 the leading tackler on any defense will be a linebacker. The defensive line eats up space, which forces a running back into a specific gap, which then leads them right to a linebacker ready to get another tackle. Looking at Fred Warner’s tape, one of the major things that stood out to me was how sound of a tackler he is. Rarely did a ball carrier get past him once he got his hands on them.
Warner does a great job of shedding his blocker and making a sound tackle. This is the type of play a weakside linebacker will need to make multiple times in an NFL game. Warner showed the ability to make this play on multiple occasions and this is the type of thing that will translate very well into the NFL.
Here is a great example of play recognition. Warner is in zone coverage and recognizes the running play. He shows off his athleticism and attacks the ball carrier, making a tackle for loss. Warner had 32 ½ tackles for loss in his college career and will look to continue that into the NFL. This aggressiveness is something that you like to see from a young player, but it can also get him into trouble.
Warner is in a curl/flat zone here. He is covering outside the hashes to guard against curl and flat routes. He initially let the slot receiver go by him, which is the correct thing to do given his zone responsibility. His responsibility is in front of the receiver, to clog up the throwing lane. Where he made his mistake was bailing from his coverage to attack the ball carrier, which in this case was the quarterback. The QB was able to make an easy throw to a receiver with no defender clogging up the throwing lane.
The NFL is a passing league. Stopping the run is important, but the passing game is what wins you championships. Just ask Tom Brady. When looking at any player in college for an NFL team you need to ask yourself, can this player help the pass game, or hurt the opposing passing game. Well, Fred Warner is great in coverage.
I’ve talked about curl/flat zone, so here is a great example. Warner will be asked to cover this section of the field a lot in the NFL. He does a fantastic job of keeping the running back in front of him, but covering the receiver enough so he’s in position if the receiver is running a curl. Smart football will go a long way in the NFL.
In the red zone is where a linebacker will make his money. Warner is in coverage here, chipping the tight end but smartly letting him go, realizing he has a receiver streaking across the formation. This was a play design meant to go to that receiver, but Warner recognizes it and blows up the play.
To be a next-level linebacker, a player needs to make those game-changing plays: interceptions and fumbles that can determine wins and losses in the NFL.
Warner lays the wood on the receiver and causes the fumble. This is the type of play you want to see out of a young linebacker.
Warner played a hybrid role in college that really doesn’t exist in the NFL. Due to the wide hash marks in college, there is a lot more space on one side of the field on most plays. Warner lined up almost exclusively on the wide side with responsibilities that are similar to a strong safety and a weakside linebacker. He had zone responsibilities but was also responsible for the edge on some run plays. This will be a transition for him to go to a weakside or middle linebacker in the NFL, but it shouldn’t be a big issue for him. The 49ers coaching staff will let him be an athlete and make plays on Sundays, just as he did on Saturdays for BYU.