The San Francisco 49ers made Fred Warner the highest-paid inside linebacker in the NFL this week, signing him to an extension that sparked debate about the value of paying a premium for players at his position. Yet the structure of the contract means the Niners are unlikely to ever feel like they are paying over the odds to keep arguably the most important player on their defense on the roster.
Warner received a five-year, $95 million extension from the Niners to keep him on the team through the 2026 season. He had previously been due to hit free agency at the end of the upcoming 2021 campaign.
A third-round pick in 2018, Warner has established himself as the premier middle linebacker in football, his athleticism and awareness in pass defense seeing him quickly develop into a player who can thrive in coverage not only against running backs and tight receivers, but also when defending wide receivers one on one.
The Niners were never likely to risk letting him test free agency, but the headline figures of his contract led some to question how much impact a linebacker can legitimately have on the overall performance of a coverage unit and the logic behind rewarding Warner with a deal that carries an average annual value of over $19 million, per Spotrac.
However, the creative way the Niners have structured the deal should render such discussions moot, and San Francisco will likely be extremely happy with the price the franchise will pay for Warner should he maintain his extremely high standard of play.
Though relentless injuries prevented the 49ers from having any shot of making a second successive appearance in the Super Bowl last season, San Francisco limping to a 6-10 finish, Warner built on a hugely encouraging 2019 in superb fashion.
Having registered three sacks, three forced fumbles, nine pass breakups and an interception returned for a touchdown in the regular season in 2019 before picking off another pass in Super Bowl LIV, Warner was even more influential last season.
Warner’s all-round impact
The raw numbers (one sack, one forced fumble, six pass breakups and two interceptions) were not quite as impressive in 2020, but they do not accurately reflect the value Warner brought to the Niners last season.
Warner gave up 4.4 yards per target last season, per Pro Football Reference. Only two inside linebackers—Roquan Smith and Vince Williams—conceded fewer in 2020. His passer rating when targeted of 69.7 was fifth among middle linebackers.
An underrated pass rusher, Tampa Bay Buccaneers star Devin White (20) was the sole inside linebacker to register more pressures than Warner’s 16 last year.
He was also a top-five linebacker in terms of defending the run by ESPN/NFL NextGen Stats’ run stop win rate, with Warner finishing last season fourth in that metric among off-ball linebackers.
His combined impact in pass coverage, run defense and in rushing the passer saw Warner end 2020 tied third in Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value metric with an AV of 19. The two players to finish above him were Josh Allen and Aaron Donald, who each had an AV of 20.
49ers get best of both worlds
With arguably the best player in the NFL the only defender superior to him in AV, Warner should be considered extremely worthy of receiving a market-setting contract. Yet the price for 49ers won’t even begin to get expensive until 2023.
As David Lombardi of The Athletic explained, In coming to terms with Warner, they renegotiated his original 2021 salary, lowering it from $3.4 million to $920,000, while dividing $25 million of guaranteed money into two prorated bonuses, a signing bonus, and an option bonus.
The signing bonus of $12.3 million prorates from 2021 to 2025 and the $12.7 million option bonus, which is paid on April 1 next year, from 2022 to 2026.
As a result, Warner’s cap hit in 2021 will remain the same as it was before he signed the extension. He will count $3.6 million against the cap this year and just $8.1 million against the cap in 2022. In other words, for the next two seasons, the 49ers will enjoy the services of the top linebacker in the game at well-below market value.
With the cap expected to rise to around $208 million in 2022, per Spotrac, having Warner at tied down at that affordable price will give the 49ers increased flexibility to supplement their roster in free agency.
The cap hits get more exorbitant in 2023 ($18.5 million) and 2024 ($22.1 million) but with 2025 and 2026 voidable years on the contract that can be processed through the payment of a $3.6 million buyout, the 49ers have given themselves the opportunity to renegotiate with Warner in 2024 and potentially sign him to another team-friendly deal that would likely mark his final lucrative NFL contract.
San Francisco is known for creative contract structures and, if Warner continues to perform at the levels he has displayed through his first three years in the league, this deal will be a significant win for the 49ers, as his cap hit won’t reflect his worth until 2023 and the Niners have maneuverability thereafter.
The headline figures may have had some questioning San Francisco’s wisdom but the reality is Warner’s extension is one that reflects the 49ers’ acumen for simultaneously rewarding their players and protecting the organization’s finances.