The 49ers agreed Wednesday to make Fred Warner the highest-paid linebacker in the NFL.
Now, they must give him more ways to earn it.
And first-year defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans might be just the man to set up Warner to take the next step in expanding his game -- and his impact on the defense.
In his first three seasons as a professional, Warner was the epitome of reliability. He started every game. He led the 49ers in tackles. He was also outstanding in pass coverage.
That might sound like he is doing enough. But there’s more for Warner to accomplish.
Warner’s new contract comes approximately a week before it was expected, as the 49ers are set to open training camp.
A year ago, the 49ers wrapped up their most important offensive player, tight end George Kittle, to a big-money deal. That commitment to Kittle sent a signal about holding onto a building block.
Warner, 24, is the Kittle of the 49ers’ defense.
Warner was not expected to put on pads and be on the practice field without a new deal that provides security for his future.
The new contract is a reported five-year, $95 million extension. That figure, $19 million per season, makes him the highest-paid player at his position.
It also suggests the 49ers expect Warner to continue to build his game. They expect him to fill in the gaps and provide more contributions in areas where the 49ers might be lacking.
At the time of the 49ers’ promotion of Ryans to defensive coordinator, Warner told NBC Sports Bay Area that he expected to see a more aggressive approach.
Warner is the player on the 49ers’ defense who can benefit most from a defensive design that promotes more playmaking.
In three seasons, Warner has just four sacks and 15 tackles for loss.
There are legitimate questions about the 49ers’ pass rush this season. We all saw how the production of the 49ers’ defensive front took a nosedive last season without DeForest Bucker, who was traded to the Indianapolis Colts, and after injuries to Nick Bosa and Dee Ford.
Warner must be turned loose more than in the past. The 49ers must rely on him to become a big part of the team’s pass rush. They also must deploy him to attack and make more tackles behind the line of scrimmage on run plays.
In other words, the 49ers must put Warner in a position where he earns every penny of his contract.
As the quarterback of the defense since his rookie season of 2018, Warner has done everything asked of him.
The time has come for the 49ers to ask more of him.