Fred Warner

49ers' Fred Warner focused on making big improvements for 2020 season

49ers' Fred Warner focused on making big improvements for 2020 season

Linebacker Fred Warner was one of the 49ers’ breakout stars during the 2019 season.

He led the team with 118 tackles during the regular season, to go along with three sacks. As the middle linebacker, and the player who relays the defensive signals to the huddle, he also took another step toward being a leader. And for a while it looked as if he made a play to remember in Super Bowl LIV when he intercepted a pass from Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes in the third quarter.

The 49ers' offense cashed in to take a 10-point lead.

But Warner, 23, said on The 49ers Insider Podcast that expects a lot more of himself in his third NFL season. And the 49ers’ 31-20 loss to the Chiefs will help fuel him and his teammates.

“I feel like as the year went on, in my second year, I continued to get better and better, and I think that’s what’s key,” Warner said. “Hopefully . . . not hopefully, I’m going to make sure that I start off next year the way I left this year or make sure I’m even better.

“I don’t want to take any steps back. Because you’re never the same. You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse. I want to make sure I’m better.”

The 49ers let a 10-point fourth-quarter lead slip away as the Chiefs outscored the 49ers 21-0 in the final seven minutes of the Super Bowl. It was a loss that is going to stick with the team for a long, long time. The only way to get past it, Warner said, is to begin making improvements for the future.

“It sucks, but you can’t sit and dwell about it for too long because you’re just wasting time,” Warner said. “I want to get back to work. I want to be able to become a much better player than I was this season. And I know I will. It all starts now.”

Three days after the loss, coach Kyle Shanahan held a meeting at the 49ers headquarters in Santa Clara, during which he spoke to the team about all that was accomplished in 2019 and into 2020. The 49ers bounced back from a 4-12 season in 2018 to go 13-3, win the NFC West, earn homefield advantage in the NFC playoffs, then tear off two 17-point victories to reach the Super Bowl.

“Being so close, then falling short, it hurts a lot,” Warner said. “But I think the biggest thing I’ve taken from it is that we’re going to be a lot better next season. We have to be if we want to win the thing. I think we have a great plan. We have a great team.

“It was special to talk about the things that went well. There was a lot to talk about. It was a great season. (We) just talked about going into next season and our expectations of ourselves and we’re excited for the future. It’s really bright. We had an outstanding year this year, and we’re excited to get back to it next season.”

There will be some comings and goings during the offseason, but the nucleus of the 49ers’ roster is under contract and will return. And most of team consists of ascending players, such as Warner.

[RELATED: How 49ers' coverage allowed KC's Super Bowl-altering play]

Warner began to receive recognition around the league for his play in the middle of the 49ers’ defense last season, but when he watches himself, he constantly sees areas in which he believes he can improve.

“Everybody talks about it was a good season, but I feel I can be so, so much better,” Warner said. “That’s what’s exciting to me. I know that’s how a lot of guys in that locker room feel.”

How Fred Warner became quality field general, leader for 49ers defense

How Fred Warner became quality field general, leader for 49ers defense

Fred Warner sat quietly in the 49ers locker room on Friday, seemingly insulated from the activity around him. His eyes were locked on a tablet displaying Kansas City Chiefs film. He scrolled back and forth, scanning the offense for tendencies and clues on how to defend it.

There were but a few moments between the time he plopped down and his weekly press conference, but he wasn’t letting spare seconds slip.

The 49ers middle linebacker clearly was taking advantage of every waking moment to prepare for Super Bowl LIV’s clash with the dynamic Chiefs attack.

All 49ers defenders will fine-tooth comb leading up to the championship game, as they have before each clash. It’s particularly important Warner understands what Chiefs coach Andy Reid’s offense can and will do, and how the 49ers' defense will respond.

The green dot demands it.

That indicates Warner is the 49ers' signal caller, relaying defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s play calls to players on the field. He’s chiefly responsible for making checks and ensuring defenders are in proper position to make plays.

“I feel like it's an honor just to be able to be out there and have the green dot and give the calls,” Warner said. “I take a lot of pride in that, and I try and make sure I'm the most prepared every single week with my own preparation individually, outside of our meeting rooms and stuff like that, just making sure I'm watching tape.”

Just like he was in moments before uttering this quote Friday afternoon. Warner assumed the responsibility as a rookie last season and has grown into an adept field general capable of making sure the 49ers are in position to react quickly. He has been a rock in the middle, keeping the team's linebackers afloat this season after Kwon Alexander went down with a pectoral injury. 

Warner has been excellent calling plays and executing them in his second professional season. He has 124 tackles, six passes defensed, a forced fumble and three tackles for loss in a year where he played 99 percent of all defensive snaps. He was even the NFL's Defensive Player of the Month in November. 

Warner’s also in great sync with Saleh after nearly two seasons working with him.

“As a rookie, hadn't played in the box or even given calls before, so it was an adjustment for sure,” Warner said. “There was a learning curve. But this year, he's been great about just keeping up with me, just seeing where I'm at, if it's too much, and lightening the load for me so I can go out and just play fast and be able to anticipate what the offense is doing.”

Saleh talks extensively about removing gray area from his game plans, and taking some from Warner's plate, so his guys can react quickly and use immense talent to make plays. Reid’s offense can be complex, with ways to deceive defender’s eyes and make them a step slow. That’s death against Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and his track team of skill players.

“It's our job as coaches to try to make it ... you're always just trying to tell them a story and you’re trying to make it as easy as possible,” Saleh said. “You don't want to show them every play that coach Reid has run in the history of his system. You'd die, I think. But, at the same time you do have to -- coach Reid has a philosophy and we have to find a way to pull that out so the players can understand it.

“… It's our philosophy in this system to eliminate gray area from players, as much as you can. Gray area always creates hesitation. You want these players playing in a world of black and white so they know what's expected of them so they can go as fast as humanly possible.”

[RELATED: Chiefs' Travis Kelce poses tough challenge for 49ers in Super Bowl 54]

Warner must have great understanding before the snap and relies on Saleh and extensive film study. He has grown to enjoy his homework and the mental side of a violent, yet cerebral game.

“That's something that for sure evolved over the years,” the BYU alum said. “[New England Patriots LB] Kyle Van Noy went to BYU and kind of took me under his wing, and he was a film junkie. I kind of took that from him. And then once you get to the NFL, it's a whole ‘nother ball game. You can't just go out there just hoping you're going to figure things out. You've got to be able to anticipate what's going on.

"You can't know that unless you're looking at the tape so you can see what they're giving you.”

Chiefs' Travis Kelce poses tough challenge for 49ers in Super Bowl 54

Chiefs' Travis Kelce poses tough challenge for 49ers in Super Bowl 54

SANTA CLARA – The Kansas City Chiefs employ an Olympic track team at the skill positions. At least that’s what it seems like with so many lightning quick parts of the pattern, who could combine to form one heck of a relay team.

Travis Kelce might never get the baton in that situation. He might not even be an alternate on the 4x100, but that doesn’t make him any less dangerous as a receiving tight end.

He’s the best of this generation, certainly equal to 49ers tight end George Kittle as a receiver. Kelce was a second-team All-Pro behind Kittle this year after being named to the first team two of the past three seasons.

In short, he’s awesome. Kelce also adds another dimension to the passing game. He isn’t slow by any stretch, even if he’d never beat Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman and Sammy Waktins in a race.

He’s physical, quick and a human mismatch against linebackers and safeties alike. He’s someone the 49ers will focus on Feb. 2 in Super Bowl LIV in Miami.

“The dude is a receiving threat for sure,” 49ers middle linebacker Fred Warner said. “They like to put him in a lot of different positions to get him to catch the ball, and he knows what to do with it after he catches it. So I mean, he's a mismatch for sure. You don't really know who to put on him. You put a safety on him, he's a bigger body. You put a linebacker on him, he's shifty, he's fast. So he's going to be a challenge for us for sure.”

The 49ers, however, are used to covering elite tight ends. They did it often in the offseason and training camp dealing with Kittle – top units play the scout team during a regular-season practice week – when first units clash.

Kittle studies him as much as anyone looking for tips in the game tape, and respects Kelce’s game.

“I've been a fan of Travis Kelce since he's been in the league,” Kittle said. “I watched his tape when I was in college. Watch his tape now. I get his games every single week so I can watch what he does. He's definitely one of the best in the game at what he does, receiving, just finding open spots. I got to meet Travis last year when we played him at the Chiefs. Had a jersey exchange after the season and then I met him again in Atlanta during the Super Bowl. So we definitely know each other. He's awesome.”

Kelce could be a headache running over the middle, especially on third down. Kelce led the NFL with 1,229 receiving yards on 97 catches on 130 targets, with 66 receptions going for a first down.

Kelce also knows how good the 49ers have been this season. According to pro-football-reference.com, they allowed a league-low 552 yards to tight ends, on 66 catches during the regular season. They have also given up six touchdowns to tight ends.

[RELATED: Chiefs' Bieniemy indentifies 'heart and soul' of 49ers' defense]

That’s why Kelce’s pouring focus into finding ways to game prep.

“I’m working hard, trying to figure out how to beat the 49ers,” Kelce said. “That has been the mindset every day since we won the AFC championship game. We have two weeks to prepare for the biggest game of my life, and the clock’s ticking.”