It started a few seasons ago, and over the years you’re going to get better and better examples of it, but right now, San Francisco 49ers defensive general Fred Warner is the first great product of the next wave of hybrid linebackers. These are the ones built to defend the NFL’s offenses of tomorrow, which no longer feature three-down backs slamming the ball up the gut and have instead become more of air shows, some featuring dynamic passers with legitimate mobility.
As a result of this offensive change, you don’t see 250-pound linebackers so much anymore – that’s dying out. There's a shift toward getting these super athletic linebackers. Teams have to morph the positions to fit that transformation. Front sevens can’t all be hulking behemoths when offenses are passing all over them. Linebackers are getting picked on by more athletic running backs in the passing game, big fast tight ends, and the occasional mismatch on a receiver, often in the slot.
Stopping the run is an expectation for a LB, but there now has to be more emphasis on being able to cover. This made the timing of Warner entering the league, with his particular athletic profile and concerns by some as an every-down player, a forward-thinking draft pick by the 49ers, interestingly enough by Kyle Shanahan who is one of the very minds pushing the game's offensive evolution, and thus the reaction to it on defense.
One way Shanahan wins is by exploiting mismatches. Warner, by design, is a player that erases those opportunities because he can cover everyone.
Playing the “Flash” position at his alma mater BYU – a hybrid linebacker/safety position – Warner's curb appeal in the 2018 NFL Draft was his ability to cover while excelling as a run-stopping, pass-rushing linebacker. And for his size (6-foot-3, 230 pounds), to move the way he does is impressive.
Two years into his career, it’s safe to say this third-round experiment by general manager John Lynch, the San Francisco scouting department, and no doubt Shanahan, has hit. Specifically, it's Warner’s elite combination of awareness, eyes, and athleticism that have translated and carried him to NFL stardom, which we’ll demonstrate below.
Most of these plays will illustrate how Warner wins in pass coverage, and the ripple effect of his primary traits (awareness, eyes + athleticism).
Super Bowl LIV – 3rd and 12 – Kansas City Chiefs – Interception
Right off the bat, Warner already knows it’s a pass. He wouldn’t take that generous of a step back prior to the snap if he weren't sure. Based on the down-and-distance, the formation (single back, three wide), plus picking up on something on motion, he knows it’s a pass, that’s why he’s starting that deep. He’s a smooth mover in space; this is nice fluid coverage in the seam, as he watches the QB the whole time as he releases. Reading the play from the get-go, Warner gets in perfect position for the interception in front of speed freak Tyreek Hill. It’s also a bad throw on top of it, as Patrick Mahomes tosses it right to him.
NFC Championship – 1st and 10 – Green Bay Packers – PBU
Warner plays Packers tight end Jimmy Graham man-up, and doesn’t once look for the ball – he just stares at Graham’s face, sees where he’s looking, and puts his arms up at the perfect time for the deflection. He plays this like a safety. Warner turns his hips nicely to run with the tight end and it’s just reading Graham as he looks the ball in. That’s his eye discipline, awareness, and athleticism all working in confluence.
Week 16 – 2nd and 10 – Los Angeles Rams – Interception, Pick 6
Warner started to take the angle before the snap and begins to jump the route before Jared Goff even turns his head to Malcolm Brown in the flat. He knew it. He never once looks at the running back – he knew where the running back would be. Warner had eyes on Goff the entire time he was running toward Brown, knowing the pass was coming his way, and then he finishes the play. That’s ball-hawking; that’s the safety in him. But again, it’s all eyes – this time never leaving the QB, reading him the whole way – and knowing what’s coming from film study.
Week 14 – 2nd and 4 – New Orleans Saints – PBU
This is freak ability and football acumen that went overlooked because it wasn’t a takeaway and it happened in a high-scoring game. When he turns his hips not the first time, but the second time, when he’s under the 20 yard line, that’s nutty athleticism. That’s not how a linebacker is supposed to move. His hips turn so fast on the in-route – and for him to turn that quickly, Warner had to know that was an in-route, it was instinctual, that’s that awareness level and film study. Warner and the Saints receiver almost did it at the same time. Notice again, his eyes are trained to look at the quarterback no matter how his body is positioned.
Week 13 – 2nd and 10 – Baltimore Ravens – PBU
What’s crazy about this is Warner starts the play at the right hash and he ends up diving for the ball at the opposite end of the left hash with a wide receiver, Hollywood Brown, that ran a 4.30 40. He’s 6-3, 230 keeping up with that. Observe the fluidity in his motion, as he rotates his hips like a defensive back does. He's able to contort and with his eyes locked on Brown, stay with the receiver in the speed turn. Warner had another athletic diving breakup over the middle vs. Mark Andrews in the game, but in comparison, tight ends just look easy for him, which is ultimately the point of this.
Week 10 – 3rd and 1 – Seattle Seahawks – PBU
This play is impressive out of the gate. Warner doesn’t even bother with the play-action fake by Russell Wilson, not biting in the least bit. And it’s play-action to the other side, so there’s a point in time where the ball is hidden from his point of view, and he still stays home. Warner rolls out on his assignment and makes a good body control pass breakup. He should’ve caught it, but at the same time, not many middle linebackers are making that play to begin with. That's his high-level awareness, trust in himself, film study, and the play itself, capped off by an athletic finish to force 4th down. That's a veteran play for a second-year linebacker.
Week 9 – 2nd and 29 – Arizona Cardinals – PBU
As a hybrid MLB/S, Warner knows where the ball is at all times. Similar to plays against other quarterbacks, his eyes never leave Kyler Murray. He reads this play the whole way. When he gets jumps like that, similar to the pick-6 against Goff, that is hard work done in the film room. It should also be mentioned that his ability to glide to one area of the field while staring down another point on the field is impressive. If you’re going to run somewhere, you’re probably going to look at where you’re running to – he doesn’t do that. This should’ve been another interception for Warner.
Week 5 – 3rd and 8 – Cleveland Browns – PBU
Warner rushes over the center, who actually blocks him well. He doesn’t beat the block but has the awareness to time the leap and bat down Baker Mayfield’s attempt on the deep out to WR Odell Beckham Jr. Understanding of where his body was while still on the block, he was still able to troubleshoot and affect the play. With Warner, there’s a lot of “A failed, let’s go with B” – and he does that quickly in his head. That specific type of processing is part of his awareness, and it is incredibly valuable.
Week 1 – 3rd and 19 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Forced Fumble
When he goes for these punches, Warner is always already in a good position to hit the guy and make the tackle if he needs to. He knows "Peanut Punches" are not always going to work, but the film study and total awareness of the play enable him to take these types of chances. That trait also helps with the actual in-the-moment decision and hand-eye to execute the punch.
Now, by how good Warner is at pass coverage, it shouldn't be a surprise to learn that it benefits his pass rush. When he does get sacks, it’s because Warner's coverage is feared.
When he’s in a gap near the line, teams think he’s going to drop back. With the 49ers having the DL they have and Warner’s pass coverage being his lethal edge, opponents are less cognizant of him blitzing. They’re more worried about his pass coverage. That’s his bread and butter, so he winds up being the free rusher. He draws 1 on 1s or comes in unblocked altogether, which works because he’s fast and takes good angles.
Week 12 – 3rd and Goal – Green Bay Packers – Sack Fumble
Warner is 230 pounds, he’s going against a guy that’s 310, and he gets off the block pretty easily for a smaller linebacker.
Now, pay attention to this part because this is one of my favorite Warner plays. While it’s hard to know if it’s intentional – you’d have to ask him – you see Warner has one hand free and one hand that seems like it’s trapped. With his free arm, he pushes the loose ball back. I think his thought process is, Green Bay will lose more yards even if the offense recovers it. Also, “I can’t recover the ball with just one hand,” and by doing this, he gives someone else an opportunity to recover. To make that kind of play, that awareness level is 1,000.
These next two sacks are, like I said, products of him being a feared coverage defender and the 49ers having a bunch of lunatics on the D-line.
Week 10 – 3rd and 4 – Seattle Seahawks – Sack
Warner fires in totally unblocked. The Seahawks are worried about the 49ers DL. They’re double-teaming Arik Armstead instead.
Week 10 – 3rd and 5 – Seattle Seahawks – Sack
In the same Seattle game, it was another unblocked sack for Warner on a play where Armstead was double-teamed again. He uses his speed to his advantage, but you can tell when it comes to pass protection, opponents are worried about everything but him.
The Best of a New Generation
Warner always brought rare athleticism, smarts, and dual-position experience to the pros. But his eye discipline and processing, either reading the quarterback down or the hips and eyes of receivers, is a dominant trait of his I was not expecting to see. It has been invaluable for him as he's made a name for himself in the league.
But, there’s a reason Warner is staring at the quarterback the whole time. As much as it's the quarterback’s job on offense, that’s the MLB’s job on defense—they need to know what audibles, formations, and motions likely mean, and act on them to best position not only themselves, but the entire unit for success.
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But what's unique about Warner's vision as a middle linebacker is he moves perfectly to where he needs to be on the field while never breaking eye contact with the quarterback. Again, when running from point A to point B, you typically want to look where you’re running. It’s almost like a no-look pass Warner is doing all the time. Not every middle linebacker is able to do that well. It's what helped him finish 4th in the NFL in 2019 for linebackers in pass breakups (11).
It led to him grabbing an interception in the Super Bowl.
When it comes to pass defense, Warner is the best linebacker in the game, and he's only 23 years old. At this particular hybrid style, there’s none better – there’s Deone Bucannon, Telvin Smith, but none of them stand out as Warner does. Bobby Wagner is the best MLB in the NFL; Jaylon Smith is up there, and Lavonte David is very good. Only they didn’t come from hybrid backgrounds like Warner, they’re traditional style linebackers.
And, as time passes and the game evolves, Warner will just become more valuable.
Media courtesy AP Images
Graphic courtesy Dillon Hiser