In case you weren’t on the internet on Wednesday, the San Francisco 49ers signed Fred Warner to a massive contract extension. The four-year deal is worth up to $95 million with $40.5 million guaranteed. Those are record marks for an off-ball linebacker and those figures sparked some debate about positional value.
While the prototypical off-ball linebacker can be an overvalued position, Warner specifically isn’t the kind of player running around amassing clean-up tackles. Warner has been one of the league’s best coverage linebackers since he entered the league and if you’re the kind of person who believes teams should be investing in what impacts the passing game on each side of the ball, that sounds like a pretty good thing.
Warner also isn’t a linebacker who happens to be good at coverage, the ability to play the pass has been his defining trait since college. At BYU, Warner was an overhang backer, who routinely played in the slot. PFF had Warner charted with 183 coverage snaps in the slot during his senior year in 2017. He was a 75th percentile SPARQ athlete and had the awareness and instincts to amplify that athletic ability. Here’s a play from BYU where Warner starts the play outside the hash, bumps the slot receiver off his route, and rallies to the running back to stop him short of a first down on a third-and-4.
There’s also the debate about the linebacker position in general and the push for more safety-type converts at the NFL level. Those transitions often fail because of the inability of those players to have comfort in the middle of the field, fit the run, and take over the other down-to-down responsibilities of a linebacker. Warner represents the other side of that transition, potentially the best-case scenario for a modern NFL defense — a linebacker who understands all of the nuances and responsibilities of the position with experience playing the slot and some safety.
During his NFL career, Warner has played a more traditional linebacker alignment — he’s not in the slot as often before the snap — but the coverage ability has translated. Here he is running with Baltimore’s Marquise Brown and forcing a pass defensed.
Then there’s Warner lined up in the B-gap pre-snap before he dropped back to cover Chris Godwin, the inside receiver in a bunch. Warner was able to stay with Godwin for multiple changes in direction and even though there was enough separation for Godwin to get the ball in his hands, Warner stayed close enough to knock it out. Few linebackers in the league would be given that coverage responsibility and fewer would be able to stay close enough to make that play.
Unlike the idea of replaceability at running back on the other side of the ball where there are so many talented runners it’s not as difficult to find production that could come close to the top of the position especially with a good offensive line, it would be much harder to find a player who could replicate the type of role Warner plays in this defense. The entire structure would changee. This isn’t an old-school chase-and-tackle kind of role.
Another part of the reasoning against paying a linebacker this type of money is the idea of coverage being a weak-link system. In essence, the effectiveness of a coverage unit is more about how strong the worst player is than the best one. With a clear weak link in coverage, opposing offenses can pick on that player regardless of how good the best coverage player is. But when elite coverage corners get paid, it’s rarely seen as a poor use of resources. A great coverage corner can take away one receiver or one part of the field to make it easier for the defense to use more attention and resources to the remaining receivers or area of the field. Well, like a good shutdown corner, Warner’s presence discourages opposing offenses from throwing to one of the most valuable areas of the field, the short middle.
Take a look at the heatmap for targets and success for offenses across the league in 2020:
Now take a look at what that looked like against the 49ers last season. There were fewer passes thrown to the short middle and there was a significant success gap in the area Warner often patrols.
The league average EPA per attempt on passes that traveled between 1-15 air yards in the middle of the field was 0.21 in 2020, according to Sports Info Solutions. An average of 59.3% of those pass attempts produced positive EPA. Against the 49ers, those numbers were -0.07 EPA per play with a positive play rate of 48.6%. That positive play rate was the lowest in the league and the EPA per play figure was behind only the Pittsburgh Steelers (-0.08) as the only two teams to produce negative EPA on throws to that part of the field. San Francisco was top-5 in both of those metrics during the 2019 season. Individually, Warner was ninth in yards allowed per coverage snap among linebackers last season.
San Francisco ranked seventh in DVOA and EPA per play against the pass despite the third-most adjusted games lost at defensive back last season. Warner’s presence and ability in the middle of the defense made it easier for the 49ers to fill in the gaps around him.
As for the contract itself, the numbers certainly are big but it’s another case of the 49ers protecting themselves against a long-term albatross contract. Per Over The Cap, Warner’s cap hits for the 2021 and 2022 seasons are just $3.6 million (2021) and $8.2 million (2022). Yet, given the structure of the contract, that’s when most of the guaranteed money is on the books. $12 million of Warner’s 2023 salary will become guaranteed during the 2022 season, but there is a potential out in 2023 with even more savings should this be a disaster by 2024. But it’s hard to imagine this contract looking bad so soon. Warner is just 25 years old and will be in his age 30 season when the extension is over.
Warner’s big cap hits — he jumps from an $8.2 million charge in 2022 to $18.5 million in 2023 — will come at a time where the cap is expected to explode given a return to normalcy over the next two seasons and even more revenue expected in the future. The 49ers will also have a quarterback on a rookie contract for the next four seasons with a fifth-year option possible in 2025. San Francisco also won’t be a team pressed against the cap over the next few seasons. The cap and cash flow remain healthy even as they do pay some of the top players at their positions, such as Trent Williams.
There is going to come a point when the 49ers might need to make some decisions on who will get the remaining massive contracts on the defensive side of the ball, but they’ve already identified Warner as one worthy of such a deal. It’s hard to argue against Warner making the San Francisco defense better and even harder to make the case that he’s an easily replaceable piece in that unit.