Fred Warner is what the NFL dream looks like in person. A leader. A warrior. A budding superstar. A shining example of hard work, perseverance and how to do things the right way.
A first-team All-Pro now arguably the best dang linebacker in the entire league.
And now, the highest-paid linebacker in NFL history. No argument about that.
With 2021 training camp looming, the 49ers weren’t about to allow their defensive leader to set foot on the practice field without the massive raise and huge contract he most certainly deserves.
Warner raised the bar for linebackers throughout the league when he signed a five-year, $95.225 million contract extension with the 49ers, July 22, a deal that includes $40.5 million in guaranteed money. Warner’s average annual salary of $19 million puts him ahead of Seattle All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner ($18 million per year) as the NFL’s new standard-bearer at the position.
“I think it’s something that happened organically throughout the process,” Warner said. “The only thing I wanted was to, obviously, be a Niner for a long time and to get what I deserved. We did both of those things. It just happened to be that we moved the needle in the right direction for the rest of the inside linebackers in the league.”
Special guys get special treatment. And so do special players.
Warner lifted himself into that category last year as the mainstay of a San Francisco defense — and the entire team, for that matter — that somehow managed to remain a top-5 NFL unit despite a season-long succession of injuries to key players that forced 12 different defensive regulars to miss games to injury — some of them for extended periods and others for almost the entirety of the season.
But not Warner. He was in the middle of the fray throughout every battle directing his teammates, making plays at all three levels and asserting himself as the new kingpin among linebackers throughout the league. Warner has started all 51 games the 49ers have played, including playoffs, since he entered the NFL as San Francisco’s third-round draft pick in 2018.
And he has done it with a certain style, flair and impact that sets him apart from the rest of the best at the position.
“Fred, you can call him the new-age line-backer,” first-year 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said. “He does it all. Whether it’s pass-rushing, stopping the run, stopping the pass, Fred — he can do it all.”
After leading the 49ers with 124 tackles as a rookie, Warner emerged in 2019 as a key force in the middle of a fearsome San Francisco defense that carried the 49ers to the Super Bowl and finished the season ranked No. 2 in the NFL. Warner led the 49ers again with 118 tackles and his playmaking ability emerged with three sacks, nine passes defensed, three forced fumbles and an interception Warner returned 46 yards for a touchdown.
But Warner took his game to a whole new level last season while the other key cogs of the San Francisco defense were dropping like flies around him throughout the year.
He led the 49ers for the third consecutive season with a career-high 125 tackles, and though the numbers that reflect game-breaking plays didn’t necessarily shout out for attention individually (two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, one sack, one forced fumble, six passes defensed, seven QB hits) they did display the versatility and impact play that has marked Warner as one of the NFL’s most feared and productive defenders.
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Fred Warner vaulted to stardom with a spectacular 2020 season — and the 49ers rewarded him this summer with a $95.225 million deal that makes him the highest-paid inside linebacker in NFL history. By today’s standards, Warner’s performance last year was worth the money as he posted an Approximate Value of 19 — matching the highest score ever recorded by a San Francisco defender according to a Pro Football Reference formula that puts a single number on each player-season across all positions since 1960. Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman (twice) also had seasons with an AV of 19 as they dominate this list of the greatest individual seasons by a linebacker in 49ers history.
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