Joe Looney was a mostly forgotten man in 2012, but he could be the next big thing for the 49ers’ offensive line.
Last April, San Francisco traded fourth- and sixth-round picks to move higher in the fourth round to select Looney, a 6-foot-3, 318-pound All-Atlantic Coast Conference left guard from Wake Forest.
But Looney suffered a Lisfranc injury, didn’t get a chance to compete for a job in training camp and spent the rest of the season on the bench and as a backup, watching what some described as the NFL’s best offensive line help carry the 49ers to the Super Bowl.
With a year of study under his belt and now perfectly healthy, Looney could turn into a valuable addition for that line in 2013, a delayed dividend from GM Trent Baalke’s 2012 draft.
Looney was officially listed by the end of the season as the backup to left guard Mike Iupati on the team’s depth chart, but in practice he played center and both guard spots. With Leonard Davis’ one-year deal now over, it’s possible Looney could move into Davis’ 2012 role as an extra blocker in power formations and backup across the line.
When the Niners drafted Looney last April, it was with the intention of giving the rookie a shot at the starting right guard position vacated by Adam Snyder, who had left as a free agent. Alex Boone, however, claimed the job and played extremely well all season, and Davis and Daniel Kilgore played significant backup roles while Looney worked himself back into shape and learned in practice and from the veterans on the roster.
Over the course of his rookie season, Looney wrote a blog for the team’s website. In his final installment after the Super Bowl, the former Demon Deacon standout said he’s already preparing for next season and plans to spend time at the 49ers facility working with his linemates.
“I’ve been working at all three interior line positions this season,” he wrote. “I think I’m getting a hang of center and I’m just going to work at it this offseason and come back better. Whether it’s guard or center, I’ll do whatever the coaches want me to do and try at the best of my ability.”
Looney was highly regarded coming out of Wake Forest, but he was hurt at the Senior Bowl. When he was selected by the 49ers in the fourth round, NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said on air, “This is a good football player. I think he slid a little bit (due to injury).”
After the Niners selected him, head coach Jim Harbaugh said he believes Looney eventually will be an NFL starter. And he and Baalke had been wowed by him in his interview at last year’s NFL Combine.
“Really bright guy,” Harbaugh said of Looney. “Really smart, smart person. Not only book smart, but street smart, football smart.”
After a year of doing his homework with the likes of Jonathan Goodwin, Iupati, Boone, Joe Staley and Anthony Davis, Looney should be ready to contribute in a much bigger way this fall.