A 49ers rookie linebacker made a splashy debut in the season opener, leading the team with 11 tackles and a forced fumble.
The year was 2007. The rookie’s name was Patrick Willis.
In 2018, another rookie linebacker made his first career start in Week 1. He led San Francisco with 12 tackles, including one for loss, a pass breakup, and also forced a fumble. His name is Fred Warner.
Of course, it would be premature to anoint Warner as the next great 49ers defender after his performance in Minnesota on Sunday. Willis established himself as one of the franchise greats over an eight-year career while reaching seven Pro Bowls. He’ll be a Hall of Fame candidate when he becomes eligible in 2020.
Warner has an eternity to go, starting Sunday against the Detroit Lions.
“I could have done a lot of things way better,” Warner said. “... So I’m looking forward to that next game.”
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has said of all the predraft interviews he’s participated in, Warner’s was the best. The 49ers took Warner in the third round after playing a hybrid position at BYU that doesn’t exist in the NFL.
Warner played in the slot, often covering tight ends and receivers, because college hash marks are wider, forcing defenses to cover more ground horizontally. Some draft experts thought Warner would be a safety as a pro because of the athleticism he showed working in open space.
In drafting Warner, the 49ers were making an educated guess. They didn’t know how he would play in the crowded box as a traditional linebacker because he didn’t do it in college. But they knew he had the mind for it.
“He’s a film junky,” Saleh said. “That’s what he was coming out of BYU. You see him eating breakfast and watching tape. He’s sitting at a table by himself in the cafeteria and he’s got the tape rolling.”
The 49ers have stuck Warner at “Mike” linebacker, where he’s responsible for relaying the plays from the sideline from Saleh. It’s a tall task for a first-year player, particularly one who didn’t do it in college.
“My expectation,” Warner said, “I should be putting in the most time of any position, because I got to make sure everybody’s in position to be able to make plays.”
One play Warner would like to have back was a possible interception that banged off his hands in the fourth quarter. Warner was in coverage against Pro Bowl tight end Kyle Rudolph. He undercut a short crossing route and was in position for an interception at midfield just before the two-minute warning. But he didn’t haul it in, adding to the 49ers’ long list of missed opportunities in their eight-point loss.
Otherwise, Warner was around the ball, knifing through the line of scrimmage. He was a key factor in allowing just 3.0 yards per carry from Vikings running backs.
“He did a really good job. He was calm, he was poised; if you didn’t know he was a rookie, you’d have never guessed he was a rookie,” said Richard Sherman, who recovered Warner’s forced fumble of Dalvin Cook in the first half. “He was deliberate, made a lot of great tackles. Obviously the forced fumble was a huge play. But got his hands on multiple footballs, got a QB hit. He was all over the place.”
Warner’s debut already has the 49ers encouraged about the possibility of his pairing with Reuben Foster, who showed the potential to become one of the league’s best linebackers as a rookie when he wasn’t dealing with injuries. Foster is serving the second of his two-game suspension this week and will rejoin the team for Week 3 in Kansas City.
“He brings energy to this defense and obviously has that big-play ability too,” Warner said of Foster.
For now, Warner is out to prove Week 1 wasn’t a fluke with another standout performance in his first start at Levi’s Stadium.
“Consistency is the truest measure of performance,” said Saleh. “(Warner) has got to consistently do it until he proves that that is who he is.”