Fred Warner, the former BYU football player, already had a reputation as one of the best defensive players in the National Football League, but then he outdid himself in last week’s playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys. It did not go unnoticed.

Fred Warner had a legacy game in 49ers playoff win against Cowboys — Sports Illustrated.

Fred Warner had the game of his life vs. Cowboys — SFGate.

How Fred Warner blasted, blanked Cowboys’ CeeDee Lamb — SF Chronicle.

49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan on Fred Warner: His rookie year, we knew we had something special — Niners Nation.

Fred Warner is the Defensive Quarterback of Our Generation — Deadspin.

Even the NFL’s best corners were awed by 49ers’ Fred Warner — SFGate. 

Warner had seven tackles, one tackle for loss, one pass breakup and one interception in a 23-17 win over the Cowboys, which means the 49ers are one game away from the Super Bowl.

“It cannot be overstated how phenomenal of a performance that Warner had against the Cowboys,” wrote SI’s Jose Luiz Sanchez. “Warner was all over the place making plays both directly and indirectly. Calling him an impact player doesn’t do him justice for what he put on display Sunday evening.”

This is nothing new for Warner; it was simply more visible in a nationally televised playoff game. If fans in general weren’t already aware of Warner, they are now. Some recognized Warner’s ability a long time ago. One of them was Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers fumbles the ball while sacked by San Francisco 49ers middle linebacker Fred Warner (54) during a game in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Nov. 24, 2019. The 49ers recovered the fumble. | Ben Margot, Associated Press

After a game between the 49ers and Packers in 2020, while the teams were mingling on the field, Rodgers approached Warner, who was wired for sound. Rodgers can be overheard telling Warner, “I’m happy for you man, I really mean that. Unfortunately, name recognition means too much. Ain’t nobody better. There really isn’t. You’re the best and everybody knows it. The film don’t lie. You should be All-Pro.”

After another game that season, one between the 49ers and Patriots, CBS announcer and former quarterback Tony Romo called Warner “the best linebacker in ball.”

Warner went on to be voted All-Pro later that season and again in 2022.

He has led the 49ers in tackles every season since joining the team in 2018, collecting 634 tackles — 411 of them solo — averaging 127 per. This season he has totaled 130 tackles, three tackles for a loss, six quarterback hits, an interception, 10 passes defensed, a forced fumble and two sacks.

“Fred is as good of a player as there is in this league,” head coach Kyle Shanahan told Niner Nation. “His rookie year, we knew we had something special with just how he came in and was able to play so much for us and the pressure we put on him calling the defense and how he could handle it as a rookie like he was a 10-year vet.

“And then the second year is really when he took off, and you could see how special he was when he led us to the 8-0 start and the No. 1 defense in the league.”

If you were to select the best pure football players in the league — players who transcend position and can just flat out play all aspects of the game (Troy Polamalu, JJ Watt, Bobby Wagner being the standards) — Warner would be high on the list, along with Travis Kelce and Josh Allen (yes, a quarterback).

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At 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, Warner can mix it up in the trenches, and yet he still has the agility, speed and athleticism to cover wide receivers. With the score tied at 9 in the third quarter last Sunday, the Cowboys’ CeeDee Lamb ran a deep seam route from the slot receiver position. Warner, who was lined up on the line of scrimmage over the A gap showing blitz, turned at the snap of the ball and ran 30 yards diagonally across the field to cover Lamb.

What looked like a sure long reception, if not a touchdown — single coverage on one of the most explosive receivers in the NFL — was an incompletion because Warner forced quarterback Dak Prescott to throw the ball too far inside. Next Gen Stats reported that Warner “closed a 9.7-yard gap between him and CeeDee Lamb at the snap to a tight window when the pass arrived (0.8 yards) forcing an incompletion.”

“That is such a long way to go for Fred Warner,” said former NFL tight end Greg Olsen, the TV color commentator for the game. “He gets a lot of credit for being a tackler (but) … he is such a force and a difference maker in the passing game.”

San Francisco 49ers linebacker Fred Warner breaks up a pass intended for Dallas Cowboys wide receiver CeeDee Lamb during an NFL divisional playoff football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Jan. 22, 2023. | Godofredo A. Vásquez, Associated Press

SFGate’s Gabe Fernandez wrote, “It’s worth noting that after this play, the Cowboys gave up a delay-of-game penalty. … Not to say that correlation is causation, but it’s fun to imagine the Cowboys so stupefied by Warner’s coverage that they couldn’t figure out what to do next in time. Warner started laughing in Prescott’s face when the penalty was called.”

“Fred Warner is really a DB playing LB!” tweeted Jets’ cornerback Sauce Gardner.

“He’s the best covering linebacker in ball,” teammate Jimmie Ward told reporters after the game.

With the passing game having overtaken the NFL, pass-coverage skills have been set at a premium. In 2020, Next Gen Stats used advanced metrics to compile a list of the top 10 coverage players in the league. Warner was ranked fourth — and was the only linebacker in the group; the rest were defensive backs, as you would expect. As a linebacker, Warner also has run-stopping responsibilities.

Kalani Sitake recognized all of this shortly after taking over as BYU’s head coach in time for Warner’s junior season in 2016. Noting Warner’s unique combination of abilities, Sitake moved him to a hybrid position — nickel, safety, linebacker.

“And the reason is, he’s a big kid, but he can run,” Sitake told 49erswebzone. “He can run like a safety, so we asked him to play on the outside … and to cover a lot of slot receivers … We played some great teams with a lot of speed, and he didn’t have any problems covering those guys. I think he’ll do well in the NFL covering slot receivers and tight ends. It shouldn’t be a problem for him.”

Siktake of course proved to be correct. Warner is considered to be the steal of the 2018 draft. Perhaps overlooked because BYU won only four games in 2017, Warner wasn’t selected until the third round, 70th overall.

“You’ve got a gem there,” Sitake told 49erswebzone shortly after the draft. “One of the best players I’ve ever been around. Not just with talent but the overall package. … There are so many businesses that want to hire him right now if football doesn’t work because of how he approaches his life and how he handles his academics and everything.”

Sitake was so impressed with Warner’s football IQ that he recalled, “… This kid would come off the field, and I could go to him right away, and he would tell me where the deficiencies were. Usually, you go to your coaches up in the box to tell you what’s going on.”

The Niners have bought into Warner’s future. In 2021, the team signed Warner to a five-year contract extension worth $95 million, $40.5 million guaranteed, making him the highest paid outside linebacker in the NFL.

Weeks earlier, Shanahan had said that an extension was coming and that Warner is “a guy that I plan on being here forever and who has earned that.”

San Francisco 49ers linebacker Fred Warner speaks at a news conference after an NFC divisional playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Jan. 22, 2023. | Godofredo A. Vásquez, Associated Press