Fred Warner is a hybrid defensive player who profiles to be a potential off-ball linebacker in the NFL. He spent his time varying between the slot, the edge, linebacker and even some safety as he moved around the BYU defense.Does the 2016 All-Independent conference performer fit into the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive vision moving forward?
Fred Warner is extremely comfortable in coverage. He is a fluid mover who understands where to go. This is where he spent most of his college career as he defended slot wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs. Warner moves fluidly in coverage and has the ability to play man or zone. In the play below, Warner is in zone. He passes off the slot receiver with some contact, changes directions to stay in his zone and gets downhill quick enough to wrap up the ball carrier short of the sticks on third down.
Warner has the foot quickness to move deep down the field and has the ball skills to read the quarterback, and jump routes.
Warner also attacks like a safety when roaming downhill to break plays up. He has his eyes on the ball and is able to separate the ball from the receiver in the play below as he shoots in to make a quick hit while the receiver turns himself around.
While he did not play in the box too often, he did flash his ability to shoot downhill into the box to make a few plays against the run, like the play highlighted below.
However, a lot of his run effectiveness was found containing the edge, and beating tight ends in order to get upfield and make plays in the backfield.
He is a swiss army knife of talent, and if used correctly, his versatility becomes a very dangerous addition to a defense.
The question with Fred Warner is where exactly he will fit in in the NFL. As mentioned, he likely will not be for every team. He is too big and slow to play safety, and could not live in the slot in the NFL. While his best fit is as an off-ball linebacker, it is one of the positions he played the least. He fit in at times as a weakside linebacker but that typically kept him on the edge or out in the slot.
When it comes to him stepping into the box more often to be a three-down player, there are questions about how well he can defend the run. Jon Ledyard showed that in a more prominent role during Senior Bowl Week, Warner looked comfortable and impressive. However, there are enough concerns on tape that classifying that as a strength in his game would be going too far.
Warner takes poor angles in his pursuit. This leads to missed tackles and poor arm tackles because he engages too high or takes a bad angle.
There are some other questions when it comes to his processing and ability to step into the box consistently. On the play below, he has to contain the edge. He tried to blow the play up in the backfield but exposed a wide-open left side for a mobile quarterback. That sort of decision is less common in the NFL, but gap discipline and edge control are not.
There are also times where he is reading more so than reacting. You can see in the play below as he slowly trends to the ball, but does so hesitantly. While he is watching the ball, a lineman comes up and engages with Warner, knocking him out of the play. He needs to be engaging with the lineman by stepping up and muddying up the box.
The last question is his playing strength in the box. He is going to be undersized for sure, and while his momentum downhill can make up for it, in the box may not have as much success. He is taken into the second level by a tight end on the play below without an ability to disengage.
Kyle Van Noy, New England Patriots
This could very easily be biased by the BYU helmets, but you are definitely reminded of a role that Kyle Van Noy once had for the Cougars before moving to the NFL. Van Noy spent more time rushing off of the edge than Warner did at BYU. However, Van Noy essentially played every position from defensive end to safety. He flew around the field to track down balls and across from Ezekiel Ansah, the duo was a pass rushing mess.
Warner is similar in versatility and could find a similar role in the NFL as well. It took Van Noy the right fit, in an off-ball role for the New England Patriots before he was able to break out and become a starting NFL talent, and that is where the comparison comes in.
The two can be used in a variety of ways, but the perfect choice of usage has to come with some creativity. Teams have to get Warner in space and defending tight ends and running backs. He does not have to avoid the box at all costs and should gain experience defending the run. However, he cannot be looked at as your standard every-down linebacker. Scheme adjustments must be made to bring out the best in him.
Fit for Pittsburgh Steelers?
Could the Steelers be a team that is able to bring out the best in him? It would take creativity but it certainly is possible. One of the bigger losses from Ryan Shazier is his ability in space. Vince Williams is a boomer and a surprise sack star from a year ago. Handling the heavy lifting in the box will not be an issue. Adding a mover such as Warner to compliment by defining the quicker pass catchers outside of the box would be an ideal fit.
Of course, the team would have to find someone to stuff the run in nickel situations. While it could eventually be Warner, the Steelers have focused on getting pass rushers who can do a variety of things to disguise blitzes better. This involves T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree playing more of an inside role at times. This can get Warner back on the edge as well.
The team could not just stick him in for Ryan Shazier and think everything would be fine. However, in the second or third round, if he is on the board, there are needs that the Steelers have that he fills. Keep an eye on Warner to see if any buzz around his name comes about towards draft season.