SANTA CLARA — It was a day like any other Wednesday, with 49ers middle linebacker Fred Warner making plays and pushing buttons.
It often happens on the same snap.
It’s been that way since training camp began, and longer than that really, with Warner gradually assuming a leadership style that isn’t always warm and fuzzy.
Although Warner plays a different position, he’s the closest thing the 49ers have to Ronnie Lott, the Hall of Fame defensive back who saw every practice rep as a test of not only his own manhood but that of his teammates. The same could be said of Warner.
If the 49ers end up being one of the top-ranked defenses in the NFL as expected and earn their first Lombardi Trophy since the 1994 season, Warner will be in the middle of things. He’ll make plays, talk smack and seek to earn respect before friendship.
The start of the regular season Sunday on the road against the Chicago Bears serves as a starting gate for Warner to direct his running dialogue at an opposing team instead of his own.
“Whatever I can do to help get the most out of my teammates, that’s only going to make me better,” Warner said. “If I’m out there talking noise, challenging, I have no choice but to be at the top of my game. Because if I’m over there talking all that noise and I’m not performing, then it’s just talk. You’ve got to back that up with performance.”
Edge rusher Nick Bosa is the most gifted 49ers defender and has an appetite for work to match. But the 49ers’ beating heart is Warner, who at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, is a prototype of the modern NFL linebacker. Warner is more rangy than stout, more explosive than strong. He’s capable of going sideline to sideline, and then describing how he did it to the guy he just tackled.
About midway through camp, Warner picked a fight with wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk as a means to light a fuse. Coach Kyle Shanahan approved, saying he loves a defender who takes it right to the edge in terms of poking, prodding and provoking a reaction.
Left tackle Trent Williams said Warner sets a tone for the entire team.
“You’re competing, and everyone wants to win the period and here comes Fred,” Williams said. “He hollers out the play, he knows the snap count, he knows everything because he’s so smart. He lets you know about it too and that can get annoying.”
“Annoying” was the same term Aiuyk used after his camp altercation with Warner.
When Warner was a third-round pick out of Brigham Young in 2018, DeMeco Ryans was his position coach and now he’s the defensive coordinator. Like Shanahan, Ryans sees Warner’s propensity to instigate as a positive.
“When you’re in those tough days of camp and Fred is out there chirping, I know the offense doesn’t like it, but I like to see that,” Ryans said. “How are they going to respond? How is he going to respond? Fred’s mindset is he wants everybody on this team to be at their best. And that’s why he does the things he does at practice. He pushes not just the defense, but the offense for everyone to be at their absolute best.”
Fullback Kyle Juszczyk has looked directly into the eyes of Warner too many many times to count and realizes what opposing offenses are dealing with.
“Fred is very vocal, and you can see him running around, bringing energy to a defense,” Juszczyk said. “You see him communicating to everybody, getting everybody lined up. You know what you’re going against a very smart player and one that can really play sideline to sideline.”
Warner was a step-in-and-start rookie in 2018, played very well during the 49ers’ conference championship season and in 2020 was a first-team All-Pro. He won the Len Eshmont Award, voted upon by teammates as the most inspirational player. He won the Bill Walsh Award, voted upon by coaches to the player who best represents the standard of excellence as set by Walsh.
That season earned Warner a five-year contract extension worth a maximum of $95 million with $40.5 million guaranteed. Warner hit a rough patch when the 49ers struggled to a 3-5 start and conceded he put too much pressure on himself in light of the contract. But he came out of it and when the 49ers made their run to the NFC title game, Warner was back to his old self.
Warner now simply tries to make the most of each play and each day.
“I just want to be the best in general,” Warner said. “You talk about guys who play at an elite level in this league for a long time, the greats of this game, that’s what I strive for — to be consistently great every day so hopefully I can look up one day and be proud of the work I put in.”
With influential veteran Richard Sherman no longer with the 49ers last season, Warner assumed more of a leadership role. In the locker room, he’s as quick to praise as point out something that needs correcting.
“Fred was a big bro for me. He kind of took me under his wing and he doesn’t let anybody down,” safety Talanoa Hufanga said. “He holds the standard. The standard is set during practice with him and we have to maintain it. He’s a guy that commands the locker room, commands the defense, and we’ve got to take his lead.”
Warner’s style has rubbed off on fellow starting linebackers Dre Greenlaw and Azeez Al-Shaair. The trio can be seen often scheming and plotting their next move, with the goal always of annoying the offense and making their team better.
“Our younger guys, watching the way he works, they’re just in awe at times,” Ryans said. “Just the way he’s consistently showing up every day, making plays, leading the defense, communicating. He’s rolling. I think he’s going to have a really good year.”