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Despite team-wide struggles, 49ers linebacking corps of the future emerging



© Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

SANTA CLARA — By modern NFL trends, they are the perfect fit.

Last year, the 49ers drafted Reuben Foster, who earned a reputation as the top linebacker in the 2017 draft because of his speed, strength, and run-stopping prowess. One year later, they drafted Fred Warner, a nickel corner-linebacker hybrid who impressed the 49ers brass for his coverage abilities and intelligence.

It was widely believed Foster and Warner would form the 49ers’ linebacking corps of the future, equipped with the necessary skills to succeed in today’s pass-happy NFL.

Four weeks into the season, they have proven to be the team’s best options of the present. And in all reality, it’s be hard to imagine what this 49ers defense would look like if Foster and Warner did not anchor it.

Warner’s status as the MIKE linebacker, responsible for relaying the calls from the sideline to the players, has helped enable Foster to focus on what he does best: find the ball-carrier. He admitted that as a rookie, he felt overwhelmed whenever he was tasked with the middle linebacker responsibilities.

Warner has taken that role with open arms.

“(Relaying plays) is added responsibility, but I feel like I am made for it,” Warner told KNBR Thursday. “It’s nothing too crazy for me.”

On the field, they are the perfect complements. Off the field, their personalities contrast.

Foster is the loud, goofy, off-the-wall character that commands a room. Warner is more quiet and reserved, though he speaks up when he’s on the field directing the defense.

“When we got them here, we loved how both of them handled themselves,” Kyle 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.”

Foster and Warner do just about everything at the Santa Clara facilities film together, from watching film — sometimes on their own, away from the coaches— to lifting weights. Foster points out that Warner benches more than him. Warner points out that Foster’s play strength makes up for it. They regularly incorporate competitions amongst themselves within practice, such as who can force the first turnover.

They have developed mutual admiration for each other’s games, using similar descriptors in their evaluations.

“He stands out very well,” Foster says of Warner. “(His) speed, (he’s) small, quick, agile, (and) he is strong… Just smart really— he knows football. The dude knows football.”

“He brings a lot of energy,” Warner says of Foster. “He’s football smart. He retains information like a sponge. When he’s out there, obviously it shows with how fast he plays.”

Speed may be their most apparent similarity. When Warner, who ran a 4.64 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, first started practicing with Foster, the conclusions he drew from watching film manifested in person.

“His closing speed is the best out of anybody I have seen,” Warner said. “The hits I see on tape last year as a rookie, it’s like, ‘This dude is the real deal, for sure.’”

Warner took the starting middle linebacker job in Week 1 with Foster suspended the first two games of the season and Malcolm Smith sidelined with a hamstring injury. Warner compiled 10 tackles in the first half of his NFL debut. He finished with 13 in total, including a tackle for loss and forced fumble. He allowed just three catches on five targets for 19 yards with a pass breakup. He followed his debut with a 10-tackle performance in Week 2.

When Foster returned from his suspension in Week 3, he was “very, very excited” to play alongside Warner.

“He’s a unique guy, a unique rookie that’s come in here, in the NFL, amongst men, to come in and give it a shot with the green sticker,” Foster said. “You are a leader on defense. That says a lot.”

But Foster struggled in his 2018 debut, missing six tackles. Warner missed five. Their rough days epitomized a forgettable team-wide defensive performance, as the 49ers missed 17 total tackles and allowed touchdowns on all five of Kansas City’s opening drives in the 38-27 loss.

Foster rebounded nicely in Week 4, with exception to a miscommunication on the goal line that allowed an easy Chargers touchdown. He dominated the first drive of the game with a run stop and two quarterback hurries. Warner cleaned up 10 tackles on the day and was sound in his coverage assignments.

The sight of Warner and Foster flying around the field was a glimpse of what’s to come.

“I feel like the game is kind of moving toward that, where the linebackers have to be faster,” Warner said. “Obviously, our speed plays to our advantage out there.”

Warner has been arguably the 49ers’ most consistent performer through four games. His 43 tackles lead the team — by 26 tackles. He leads the 49ers with three tackles for loss, at times summoning images of Foster launching into the backfield like a missile. Warner has been equally as impressive in pass coverage, a well-documented strength coming out of BYU.

He is orchestrating the type of outstanding rookie season that Foster put together last year. He won the November Rookie of the Month award after amassing 30 tackles in just three games. In early May, 49ers general manager John Lynch dubbed Foster as a “Hall-of-Fame talent.”

In Year No. 2, he has improved in pass coverage. Yet his biggest strength, tackling, is linked with his biggest curse: leading with his head. Foster has become prone to head and shoulder injuries because his all-out tackling nature occasionally excludes caution.

The 49ers need both Foster and Warner to stay on the field moving forward, as they deal with attrition among the secondary and lack of production among the defensive line. Though they have just 16 combined NFL starts, Warner and Foster have become indispensable parts of the 49ers defense.