Which 49ers Rookie Has Impressed the Least Thus Far?

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Which 49ers Rookie Has Impressed the Least Thus Far?
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
Rookie guard Joe Looney in action against the Minnesota Vikings.

When the San Francisco 49ers moved up in the fourth round to take Joe Looney out of Wake Forest with the 117th overall pick in this April's NFL draft, I thought Trent Baalke and Co. may have landed a steal and potential future starter at right guard. 

Of course, Looney could one day end up being just that, but we may need to put the idea on ice for the indefinite future. 

Former swing tackle Alex Boone seems to have a firm grasp on the open competition for the starting gig at right guard, and 11-year veteran Leonard Davis looks prepared to step in if Boone falters. 

Looney, however, does not.

As far as the 49ers 2012 draft class is concerned, the former Demon Deacon has been the least impressive rookie to this very early point in the season.

It may seem unfair to pick on a guy who spent his spring and summer recovering from foot surgery and couldn't become a full practice participant until the beginning of August, but the youngster has been displaying some rather concerning struggles in what has been a considerable amount of playing time in the preseason thus far. 

Regardless of the injury, his name was initially included in the mix for the open competition at right guard, and now, he couldn't be further from the No. 1 option.

Coming out of college, draft scouts were well aware that pass-blocking was a weakness for Looney. That has certainly held true to this point, but we'll touch on those issues in a moment. 

Karl Walter/Getty Images
Alex Boone (left) projects as the starting right guard for the 49ers this season.

What I've found most concerning is Looney's lack of direction when asked to serve as a pulling guard, or even block downfield at all, for that matter. 

Instead of seeing a lineman praised for his athleticism get to the second level and square up on defenders, I'm seeing a player in preseason games who more accurately resembles a football uniform-wearing zombie stumbling about the gridiron at a snail's pace. 

Ouch, I know. But seriously, there were times where Looney would properly seek out his assignment, but fail to engage and inflict any type of meaningful blow to the defender. It was almost as if he were playing in slow motion.

Once every couple of snaps he would spring to life and pop somebody, but the rest of the time he seemed lifeless out there in games.

Anyway, if Looney's assignment has been simple, straight-ahead power blocking, he's performed pretty respectably. But that's against second- and third-string defensive lines in exhibition play. How would he fare against fierce interior linemen like B.J. Raji or Ndamukong Suh if forced into action?

Elsewhere, there is a thick layer of rust covering Looney's game, and it doesn't seem to be wearing off.

As for the previously mentioned woes in the passing game, Looney has constantly been getting blown back into the pocket right off the snap.

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He forced the extremely mobile Colin Kaepernick to succumb to defenders on one play in Denver. He was in the lineup when the Broncos were able to force a Scott Tolzien fumble, too. Both times his inability to thwart a bull-rush immediately collapsed the pocket. 

A big part of his struggles relates to his inability to win the battle with his arms. Defenders are fending off his attempts to resist pressure by overpowering his upper body and keeping him off balance. 

It was noted before the NFL draft that Looney's dominant hands have been able to make up for his inability to set a nice low base for himself in pass-blocking situations. 

In other words, the 6'3", 320-pounder has stiff hips and struggles to get low. If you can't get low, you won't be able to hold your ground when another 300-pound man is trying to go through you.

Put into more familiar terms, he's made reserve defensive linemen look like Justin Smith on the regular.

And when he's pulling up into a hole to block for a running back, it seems as though his slow-moving body has been plugging the hole more often than it's been clearing it.

There should be credit given, as Looney was responsible for a couple of the holes Anthony Dixon barreled through on Sunday. He helped break Rock Cartwright open for a big run as well.

But the bad has overwhelmingly outweighed the good. And it's the inability to stop the pass rush that concerns me most.

I know it appears as though I'm panicking over a fourth-round pick recently recovered from a serious foot injury for not playing up to speed by the third preseason game.

I assure you, though, I'm not. 

I'm simply informing you of observations and opinion that, to this point, Looney hasn't made much progress at the next level.

We've seen flashes of potential from A.J. Jenkins, LaMichael James and other rookies who have been healthy enough to play in the preseason aside from fellow lineman Jason Slowey, who was released from the team on Monday.

There hasn't been much to like from Looney. Not consistently. 

Of course, much of the 49ers preseason has seemed to lack consistency. 

The soon-to-be 22-year-old (August 31) possesses an unquestioned work ethic and a high football IQ, so I wouldn't be shocked to see steady improvement once Looney begins to develop some confidence at the NFL level. 

Those impressive characteristics are indeed an example of why he's sporting the Red and Gold.

As long as Boone continues to impress and big Leonard Davis is there to back him up, it would take an unforeseen rash of injuries to 49ers interior linemen for the team to be forced to rely on Looney in 2012.

Heck, projected backup center Daniel Kilgore could fill in, too. So, to be honest, the 49ers could part ways with Looney on Friday's final cuts and be no worse for wear. 

I don't exactly see that being the case, but I don't see Looney occupying a starting role on the 49ers offensive line anytime soon, either. 

At least not this season.

 

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