Since the 49ers selected Fred Warner in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft, the linebacker has gone on to cement himself as one of the league's top defenders.
And while no one could predict back then that Warner would evolve into a two-time All-Pro, his coach Kyle Shanahan might have had an idea. The offensive-minded coach took time Monday to reflect on Warner's abilities after the linebacker played a huge part in securing the 49ers' third trip to the NFC Championship Game in four seasons with Sunday's divisional-round playoff win over the Dallas Cowboys.
"Fred is as good of a player as there is in this league," Shanahan said via conference call. "I mean, his rookie year we knew we had something special, just how he came in and was able to play so much for us, and the pressure we put on him calling the defense and stuff like that. And how he could handle it as a rookie like he was a 10-year vet."
Warner came into training camp as a rookie and competed for San Francisco's starting role at middle linebacker. The BYU product proved his worth and started all 16 games for the 49ers in 2018, recording 124 combined tackles (85 solo), six pass deflections and one forced fumble on a team that finished 4-12 after quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL in Week 3.
But in 2019, as the 49ers Faithful know, everything came together for San Francisco -- and Warner was a huge reason why. The team started the season 8-0 and went all the way to the Super Bowl just one year removed from a four-win season.
"The second year is really when he took off, and you could see how special he was when he led us to the 8-0 start and the No. 1 defense in the league," Shanahan said.
The coach praised Warner for his ability to defend the middle of the football field in zone coverage, putting him right up there with the likes of Keith Lee, Sean Lee, Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, Shanahan said. Warner is part of a dominant 49ers linebacking corps that also includes standouts Dre Greenlaw and Azeez Al-Shaair, and all three currently have their sights set on another Super Bowl appearance for San Francisco.
"Then you have Fred right there, and Dre and Azeez are coming right along, too," Shanahan said. "But it's always started with Fred, and he covers a lot of ground over the middle.
"And I know those are usually the guys that the quarterbacks notice the most."
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts certainly will have his hands full with the 49ers' defense come Sunday, and Warner will be waiting in the middle -- though the linebacker often finds himself involved in plays no matter where they are on the field.
And as the 49ers prepare to face the top-seeded Eagles, they'll need Warner to provide some reminders of what makes him so special.