With Reuben Foster suspended and Malcolm Smith working back from a hamstring injury, it was no secret rookie linebacker Fred Warner a clear favorite to make his first career start in Sunday’s season opener against the Vikings.
Warner admitted on Wednesday that was the plan.
“I’m very excited, being this will be my first start,” he said. “I’m just trying to make sure I’m as prepared as possible.”
Warner, a third-round draft pick from BYU, will be one of two 49ers rookies expected to play every down in Minnesota. The other is ninth-overall pick Mike McGlinchey, who will man right tackle against the Vikings’ formidable pass rush.
Minnesota’s offense also appears promising. The Vikings are hoping Kirk Cousins provides a meaningful upgrade over Case Keenum after the team reached the NFC title game last season. Pair Cousins with receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, and the Vikings have Super Bowl expectations.
And they’ll be running a Super Bowl-caliber offense. The club this offseason hired John DeFilippo to be its new coordinator to replace Pat Shurmur, who took the head coaching job with the New York Giants. DeFilippo dialed up plays for the champion Philadelphia Eagles last season with backup quarterback Nick Foles at the helm.
DeFilippo emphasizes run-pass options, giving the quarterback the option to execute a designed running play — or throw a quick pass based on the alignment of the defense before the snap. It will make things especially difficult on Warner.
“It puts stress on the defense as a whole if you’re not prepared for it,” Warner said. “So that’s why we’re kind of making some adjustments to make sure we’re not getting hit in certain areas where we’re not protected.”
To try to pick up DeFilippo’s tendencies, the 49ers’ defense has watched more tape this week of the Eagles from last season than of the Vikings. In particular, they watched last season’s games against the Chargers, Seahawks and Falcons, who all run similar defenses to San Francisco’s.
Warner will be playing a new position. He worked as an outside linebacker in college, where he was tasked with covering pass catchers in the slot and working in space.
Warner (6-3, 236) brings athleticism to the position after prioritizing coverage skills at BYU. But there were questions about his physicality at the next level, which he feels he answered during his first training camp and preseason.
“I feel like it’s kind of my natural position, you could say,” Warner said. “Obviously, I didn’t do a lot of that in college. But just being out there, I feel like if I wasn’t as natural, I probably wouldn’t be doing as well as I am — and being in the position I’m in.“
Warner’s running mate on the inside remains to be seen. Smith was listed as “limited” in practice Wednesday. Warner said veteran Brock Coyle has been given the bulk of work recently at “Will” linebacker on the weakside in case Smith can’t play.
Foster was suspended in July for two games stemming from his offseason marijuana arrest and possession of an assault rifle. He will be eligible to return to practice Sept. 17 before the 49ers travel to play the Chiefs.
49ers injury updates — Linebacker Malcolm Smith (hamstring) and Jimmie Ward (quadriceps) were limited participants in practice. Brock Coyle received early work with the starters in Smith’s place.
Reserve tackle Garry Gilliam remains in the final stages of the concussion protocol and has been cleared to resume contact, but his status remains uncertain for Sunday. Recently acquired Shon Coleman would likely be the team’s “swing” tackle should Gilliam remain out after suffering the injury in the preseason opener.
Vikings line uncertainty — The Vikings could be without standout center Pat Elflein (shoulder, ankle), who was also limited in Wednesday’s practice. The injuries prevented him from participating in the offseason program.
The interior of the offensive line remains a question mark with Elflein unlikely to play. The team lost left guard Nick Easton to a season-ending neck injury last month. Last year’s starter at right guard, Joe Berger, retired in March.
Cole Hikutini’s back — The 49ers cut tight end Cole Hikutini over the weekend after he lost the battle for the No. 3 tight end job to Cole Wick. The Vikings signed Hikutini to their practice squad, leading to Shanahan getting asked if he’s worried about Hikutini spilling any secrets to his offense.
“It’s not like Cole knew our game plan or would have been able to memorize it,” Shanahan said. “But, hopefully the stuff he tells them — we’ve got double moves off all of that stuff. So hopefully they listen to him.”