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Patrick Kinahan: Fred Warner makes mark as best defensive NFL player from BYU


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SALT LAKE CITY — Topping the list might be impossible, given the credentials of a certain Hall of Fame quarterback, but no doubt Fred Warner belongs among the best NFL players from BYU.

The San Francisco 49ers linebacker has put together a stellar season, ranking among the most impactful — if not the best — at his position. Not bad for player who lasted until the third round of the 2018 NFL draft, the 70th player selected.

Warner's greatness was on display in Sunday's NFC semifinal game against the Dallas Cowboys. He put together a reign of terror, alternating between running down the field in pass coverage and disrupting plays in the Dallas backfield.

"Fred Warner is out here running with wide receives man-to-man," former NFL linebacker and current broadcaster Emmanuel Acho tweeted. "The dude is an alien! Best backer in the league."

Warner is the latest in a long line of standout NFL linebackers to come out of BYU, joining current players Kyle Van Noy of the San Diego Chargers and the Cleveland Browns' Sione Takitaki and Harvey Langi of the Las Vegas Raiders. Relatively recent former Cougar linebackers in the NFL includes Bryan Kehl, Brady Poppinga, David Nixon, Rob Morris, Colby Bockwoldt, Justin Ena and Alani Fua.

The list doesn't include every BYU alum dating back several years, but the point is made that a program previously known as Quarterback U. actually has an impressive group of linebackers.

Nearly 25 years after retiring from the 49ers, Steve Young has the distinction of being the greatest former Cougar to grace the NFL. The two-time NFL MVP won a Super Bowl as San Francisco's starting quarterback and has a list of accomplishments that is too long to mention.

With Young as the undisputed BYU GOAT, or greatest of all time, there's a healthy debate for the second best and then subsequent rankings. Beyond Young, it probably boils down to personal preference.

The eccentric Jim McMahon, who along with Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer had better college careers than Young, is a sentimental choice to rank high on the list. But a long list of injuries, in addition to playing with superstar running back Walter Payton, hindered McMahon's effectiveness with the Chicago Bears.

The pick here second to Young is Todd Christensen, the star tight end primarily for the Los Angeles Raiders. A fullback in college, Christensen bounced around the NFL before signing with the Oakland Raiders in 1979 mainly to play on special teams.

In his first full season as a tight end, he caught 92 passes for 1,247 yards and 12 touchdowns and earned the first of his five Pro Bowl honors. The Raiders culminated the season by pounding the Washington Redskins in the Super Bowl.

For his career, he had 461 receptions for 5,872 yards and 41 touchdowns. Christensen, who died in 2013 at age 57, led the NFL in receptions twice, and his 349 receptions from 1983-86 was a league record.

Given the proliferation of outrageous statistics that offenses put up in the current 17-game NFL seasons, Warner might have to settle for being the best former Cougar on defense.

At only 26 years old, Warner has a chance to go well beyond being as the best at BYU. Barring injury, he can expect several additional first-team all-pro honors and could end up earning the game's highest individual award after he retires.

Recruited during Bronco Mendenhall's tenure, Warner also played for coach Kalani Sitake during his four years in Provo beginning in 2014. He became a starter as a sophomore and was stalwart on the defense his final three years.

The ninth linebacker selected in the draft, Warner was named San Francisco's starting middle linebacker as a rookie. In July 2021, he signed a five-year extension worth $95 million, which included a $40.5 million guarantee.

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Patrick is a radio host for 97.5/1280 The Zone and the Zone Sports Network. He, along with David James, are on the air Monday-Friday from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.

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