Fred Warner's next contract with 49ers 'should be at the very high end of the market'

The last big piece of business for the 49ers this offseason is getting their star linebacker a new deal, which could set a record at his position. Stan Szeto/USA TODAY Sports

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- It's already been an eventful year for San Francisco 49ers linebacker Fred Warner.

On the heels of his best professional season, Warner got engaged to girlfriend Sydney Hightower on May 15. But if things go according to plan, that won't be the only long-term commitment Warner makes this offseason.

Three years into his career, Warner is due for a lucrative, multiyear contract extension that will make him one of the highest-paid linebackers in the league. It's the final piece of business for a Niners' offseason that has not lacked for big moves.

"Obviously, I want to be a Niner for life," Warner said. "I know all that stuff will work itself out in due time. I'm just focused on being the best player I can for this team. That's why I'm here, working with my guys and we have huge aspirations and goals for this season."

No deal has been reached yet but there is still plenty of time to get something done before the Niners open training camp on July 31. In many ways, Warner's situation mirrors that of 49ers tight end George Kittle last year when he agreed to a five-year, $75 million deal before pads came on in training camp.

Both Warner and Kittle were taken in the third round or later but quickly outplayed the contracts that go with those draft positions. Both are considered versatile weapons and key leaders San Francisco can build around.

The Niners made Kittle the highest paid tight end in history. Warner could reach the same status among off-ball linebackers.

"He's a great player," Mike Tannenbaum, ESPN's NFL front office insider, said. "He'll be up there. To me, he should be at the top of that market. He should be at the very high end of the market."

What could that look like? According to Tannenbaum, the floor for such a deal would come in around $15 million annually but "upwards from there, for sure." The comps for Warner aren't hard to find.

Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner, himself a big fan of Warner's work, holds the title as the highest-paid at the position's history in terms of annual value. Wagner signed a three-year, $54 million extension with the Seahawks in 2019.

The closest linebacker to Wagner's stratosphere is the New York Jets' C.J. Mosley, who signed a five-year, $85 million deal with $43 million fully guaranteed in 2019. Mosley's deal set position records for total value and guarantees. Coincidentally, Mosley will now be tasked with playing the Warner role for new Jets coach Robert Saleh, who was Warner's defensive coordinator in San Francisco the past three years.

After Wagner and Mosley, no other off-ball linebacker has surpassed the $14.5 million annual mark. The argument for Warner to do it is strong.

In 2020, Warner posted 125 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and two interceptions. Pro Football Focus rated him the game's best at his position with a grade of 88.6 on his way to his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro nods as well as the two most prestigious 49ers team awards.

Because Warner is only 24 and is known for his maniacal study habits and athleticism, the Niners believe his best football lies ahead.

"He's exceeded every expectation we've had of him when he came in here and we had high expectations," general manager John Lynch said. "Fred's a special leader, a special player and a big part of the fabric of this team."

Warner's role as a leader isn't lost on him. Given his situation and how much he would stand to lose because of a poorly-timed injury, it would be understandable if he elected not to participate in any on-field activities until his new deal is signed.

It's a similar dilemma to the one Kittle faced last year and why there was a sort of unofficial deadline to get Kittle signed before the Niners put the pads on for the real start of training camp. Warner doesn't subscribe to that theory, though, instead choosing to be with his teammates for organized team activities every step of the way in pursuit of getting back to Super Bowl status.

"I could get hurt walking across the street," Warner said. "You can get hurt all types of ways. But it never crossed my mind to miss this OTA. I know this is a big part of not only my growth but the team as a whole getting out here working together, seeing things, playing ball, it just sets up that foundation that you want to then work into the season and be firing like you want to. So, I never hesitated on that one."

Asked whether he's had any discussions with Warner about how to handle his pending contract negotiations, Kittle said he just let his teammate know that he can serve as a sounding board any time Warner needs one.

Kittle acknowledged that his contract situation was a bit of a distraction even as he attempted to keep it from becoming one but he hasn't seen anything different from Warner as he waits his turn.

"He's the same Fred that he has been every single day that I've known him," Kittle said. "Fred's handling it well and he's just showing up to play football. So I'm happy for that."

Much like with Kittle, there's no set deadline for when a deal needs to be done but it's fair to say all sides would like it to happen in the near future. Not only to check off one more big piece of business but because the price could go up if it happens after the Indianapolis Colts work out a new with their own young star linebacker Darius Leonard.

"I just see that kind of as a matter of time," Shanahan said. "Fred's a guy that I plan on being here forever and who has earned that. I'd be surprised if that doesn't start sooner than later."