SANTA CLARA — 49ers linebacker Fred Warner has impressed everyone with his leadership on defense. Already as a rookie, he owns the responsibility of wearing the “green dot,” meaning he's the only one who can communicate with the coaching staff via radio in his helmet.
Warner has been a model of consistency for San Francisco's defense this season, as there have been a lot of moving parts within the linebacking group. Embattled former-49er Reuben Foster only played in six games during his shortened 2018 season, while Malcolm Smith has only been active for 11.
Warner has been the one constant, starting in all 15 games. He spoke about the added responsibility of the being the leader of the defense as a rookie.
“It’s been good, honestly,” Warner said. “It’s a big responsibility. I feel like I've just taken it and tried to prepare as hard as I can every single week to make sure these guys can rely on me.”
Warner has been solid not only in making the defensive calls, but also in his performance on the field. He has registered 109 tackles, 75 solo, three tackles for a loss, three quarterback hits, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and six pass break-ups.
Prior to the 49ers' 14-9 loss to the Bears on Sunday, coach Robert Saleh was complimentary of Warner’s progress throughout the season thus far.
“I think he’s been leading all year,” Saleh said. “And his style of leadership has been the fact that he’s helping 10 other guys be confident in what they have to do. So, he’s helping them in that regard.”
Saleh also noted that Warner still has room to grow, as he finishes out the season and heads into next year.
“In terms of vocally and holding people accountable,” Saleh responded when asked about where Warner can improve. “And being one of the guys that calls people out, I don’t know if that part is there yet. That will come as he continues to gain more experience.”
Warner has made the most of his opportunity working next to a variety of linebackers. After Foster’s departure, second-year linebacker Elijah Lee stepped in and the defense didn’t skip a beat. In fact, they actually played better.
Lee led the team in tackles in the team’s 11th loss of the season Sunday at Levi's Stadium, finishing the day with 12 total tackles, including 11 solo.
After the game, Richard Sherman spoke about how well Lee and Warner have played together.
“When you lose a player like Reuben Foster, nobody really acknowledges it because Elijah Lee came in and is playing at such a high level," Sherman said. "We arguably have been playing our best football as of late because everyone has just been playing sound.
“He’s flying around, Fred’s flying around, they complement each one another. They’re very aware of backs and where they’re supposed to be, and they play well together.”
Warner appreciates Sherman's support and confidence in him.
"It's huge for me," Warner said. "Being a younger guy, and having to take that role as the MIKE backer, and leading them. Having him in the huddle, with me, just gives me that much more confidence out there."
Saleh acknowledged that Lee has done enough to make a case to start next to Warner next season. They will also continue to challenge Warner moving forward.
“Every week we add a little something onto his plate just with checks and all of that stuff. I said it before, Paul Posluszny is probably the smartest linebacker I’ve ever had the privilege to coach and he would have the whole playbook on his back. Fred doesn’t have that, but he’s very capable. Obviously, we won’t do that to a rookie, but that veteran presence, he speaks like he’s a veteran. He’s been good.”
It remains to be seen whether Warner and Lee will solidify themselves as 49ers linebacking pair for the next few seasons.
But if December is any indication, the future looks bright.