While Alex Boone stays away from 49ers camp in a bid for a better contract, Joe Looney is getting a chance to prove himself.
So far, so good.
The fourth-round draft choice from Wake Forest in 2012 has played in just four regular-season games – all in 2013 – but he’s penciled in as the starter at right guard for the time being with Boone out.
Chances are, Looney is no Boone. Boone has been terrific the past two seasons since becoming a starter and has evolved into a dominating, physical blocker on what has been one of the NFL’s best offensive lines. The 49ers will be a much better offense with Boone than without him.
But according to what’s being reported out of 49ers training camp, Looney is playing well and taking his game to a higher level. It sounds as if the Niners would be comfortable with Looney in the lineup in Game 1 vs. the Cowboys on Sept. 7 if they and Boone can’t come to an agreement.
Both GM Trent Baalke and head coach Jim Harbaugh have complimented Looney in recent days, a tack that (a) is giving Looney some positive reinforcement and (b) is sending a signal to Boone that he might not have as much leverage as he’d hoped. As Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle noted of the Baalke-Harbaugh statements: “Possible message: We can manage without you, Alex.”
On Monday, Harbaugh said again that Looney is impressing with his blocking vs. 49ers defenders.
“One in particular, I was like, ‘Wow,’ ” Harbaugh told reporters. “He pulled, he was on a track, he was square, he delivered a blow. Good things.”
Baalke said recently that Looney shined in his lone extended playing time, a game against the Rams last season. When Joe Staley went out with an injury, Boone shifted to left tackle and Looney came in at right guard, playing 60 snaps. Looney went up against veteran tackle Kendall Langford and held his own. Branch cited a Pro Football Focus report on that game that showed Looney didn’t allow a sack, quarterback hit or a hurry.
“Joe stepped in and played against one of the better defensive linemen in the league and did an awfully nice job,” Baalke told reporters. “That was his real opportunity to go out there and show in a game situation what he was capable of doing. And he showed that he was more than capable. And now he’s a year better. So we’re very confident in his ability to step in there and play football at a winning level.”
Still, the 49ers will be better off if they can work out a deal with Boone. And, if they can, a more experienced Looney will give the unit better depth over the long season to come.