In Minnesota’s raucous U.S. Bank Stadium, taking on a Super Bowl contender, Fred Warner listened to the coach over the radio in his helmet. He was in charge of putting his 49ers teammates in the right spots. He had never relayed play calls on the field until that game — his first NFL start.
His messages were received, and he led the team with 12 tackles in the defeat to the Vikings. It’s not a position many rookies are thrown into right away, particularly those who aren’t first-round picks. But the 49ers knew early on that Warner could grasp the responsibility that’s often given to more established veterans.
“We had a lot (of confidence) just because of how he handled himself the first day he got here,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said of Warner, a third-round draft choice.
Warner’s cool is one of his most notable qualities in the early going. Through two games, he’s on a promising trajectory to become a mainstay on the 49ers defense. And San Francisco on Sunday in Kansas City will have its first look at the linebacker tandem they’re planning to build around for the long haul.
Reuben Foster, back from his two-game suspension, is expected to join Warner in the middle of the defense, which has created a buzz in the locker room.
“I know everybody’s excited,” defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. “Even when Reuben wasn’t playing the first couple of weeks and we saw Fred after Week 1, even with what Fred has been doing throughout camp, everybody’s like, ‘Man, imagine Fred and Reuben out there together.’ It’s exciting to see that this weekend and all that coming to life.”
Foster, when healthy, was undoubtedly one of the NFL’s best young linebackers during his rookie campaign. He was named to the All-Rookie Team by the Pro Football Writers Association of America despite playing in just 10 games. The Alabama alum finished second on the team in tackles and was given the fourth-highest grade among all inside linebackers by Pro Football Focus. The 49ers said he was the No. 3 player on their draft board, but injury and character concerns led to him falling to pick No. 31.
Veteran cornerback Richard Sherman said Foster and Warner have “a ton” of upside.
“They’re both instinctual, they trust what they see and that’s a big part of this game is just being able to play fast and seeing something and being able to react to what you see,” Sherman said. “There’s a lot of guys who can be smart on paper and then see it on film ... but going out there and translating it to the field is difficult for a lot of guys, and those guys do it as well as anybody.”
While Warner has proven to be calm and collected, Foster admits he’ll have a difficult time balancing his excitement for being back on the field against the Chiefs.
“Getting overwhelmed is very easy. I do that every time, even if ya’ll don’t see it, I tend to do it a lot,” he said.
That could be why the 49ers took away the radio from Foster’s helmet midway through last season. Coordinator Robert Saleh gave those play-calling responsibilities to Brock Coyle midway through the year.
Coyle, then a four-year veteran who played in the scheme previously with the Seahawks, is considered an extension of the coaching staff on the field, which made him a good pairing with Foster, who plays better when he can rely on his instincts instead of X’s and O’s.
Which is why Warner and Foster might make a promising pairing. Warner’s ability to pick up the defensive scheme quickly was the key reason he was allowed to relay the plays so early on.
“I see a real dog, a real mature man, who’s about his business,” Foster said of Warner. “I really salute him for that and (I’m) proud of him for stepping up and taking control of the defense and wearing that green sticker (designating a player who has a transmitter in his helmet). I’ve worn the green sticker; it’s hard to wear the green sticker.”
Shanahan said the team didn’t necessarily look for a calming influence to pair next to Foster. It started with the way they played.
“When we got them here, we loved how both of them handled themselves,” Shanahan said. “Very different personalities, but what we feel are very good people who you can count on who football is extremely important to. So putting them in there, they both have talents that really help each other and their personalities. I do think it helps.”
Their first test will be a big one. The Chiefs (2-0) have the NFL’s highest-scoring offense, averaging 40 points per game.
Second-year player Patrick Mahomes threw 10 touchdown passes, the most ever by a quarterback over the first two games. Two of those scores last week went to tight end Travis Kelce.
With strong safety Jaquiski Tartt possibly out with a shoulder injury, Foster and Warner will be vital to covering the middle of the field.
“I think both of them are kind of that new-age linebacker that you’re seeing,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “Guys that are more athletic, can do well in pass coverage. And I think that’s a great asset to have in your game on defense, because, I know nowadays, speaking from our (offensive) side, we’re looking for linebackers that we can take advantage of in pass coverage. And those two aren’t those guys.”