NFC West: Joe Looney

Boone or Looney? Looney or Boone?

September, 11, 2014
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- As a phalanx of media members and cameras surrounded him Wednesday afternoon, San Francisco 49ers right guard Alex Boone laughed.

“You know something I don’t know?” he wondered.

The question was an obvious one: After ending his holdout six days before the Niners’ season opener and playing sparingly at the Dallas Cowboys, would he regain his starting position for the christening of Santa Clara’s Levi’s Stadium?

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Boone smiled and shook his head.

“Honestly,” he said, “I don’t know. It’s really up to the coaches. I just go out and practice and continue to learn every day and get better. It just comes down to how they feel.”

In Dallas, Joe Looney started at right guard, as he did throughout the preseason in Boone’s absence, and earned an overall grade of just -2.3 from Pro Football Focus.

Plus, PFF had Boone playing only four offensive snaps against the Cowboys, all as an extra lineman.

Niners coach Jim Harbaugh would not tip his hand on which player would get the start against the Chicago Bears this Sunday.

“We’ll make that decision,” Harbaugh said. “Both (are) fine players and we’ll make that decision as the week goes on. And we might have already made it.

“But again, we wouldn’t need to give that information out.”

Fair enough. But also chew on this possibility: As right tackle Anthony Davis, whose 64-game playing streak came to an end in the opener, missed practice Wednesday with a hamstring strain, might the 49ers flip Boone, who started every game the previous two years at right guard, to right tackle?

Jonathan Martin, who has been playing in place of Davis, had a relatively decent PFF grade of +0.8 against the Cowboys to go with left tackle Joe Staley (-1.2 overall, -3.2 in pass protection, +1.8 run blocking), left guard Mike Iupati (-1.8 overall) and center Daniel Kilgore (+1.1).

Per PFF, 18 of the 25 runs by 49ers running backs were outside the tackles, picking up 4.1 yards per carry.

Last week, Boone and his new two-year, $6 million contract got in work on the scout team, preparing the defensive starters for a skill set more closely resembling what they would face against Dallas than what a regular scout teamer would offer.

“It was awesome,” Boone said. “Practicing against Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Patrick Willis? It’s always fun to play with them. Whatever I can do to help the team get better.”
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- So what was Alex Boone mostly occupied with during his lengthy holdout, which came to an end Monday?

“Really, just laying on the couch, holding my babies, not doing much,” the San Francisco 49ers right guard said Tuesday afternoon in the team’s locker room. “That’s about it.”

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Well, not quite.

Boone was also in Chandler, Arizona, working out six days a week with former NFL offensive lineman LeCharles Bentley and trying to stay in shape for the regular season.

As such, without a single preseason or training camp snap, Boone believes he could step in Sunday in the 49ers’ season opener at the Dallas Cowboys and reclaim his starting job from Joe Looney. The 6-foot-8, 300-pound Boone has started 32 straight games.

“That’s up to the coaches,” he said. “Personally, I think I’ll be very effective.”

Per ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, Boone’s previous contract, which would have paid him up to $4 million over the next two years, was torn up in favor of a new two-year deal, with an increase in salary and incentives if he reaches the Pro Bowl. The 49ers also will not be able to use their franchise tag on Boone once the new contract has expired, sources told Schefter.

Boone acknowledged the no-tag provision, saying he wanted to ultimately experience free agency.

“Like all things, this is a business,” he said. “I have to look after my wife and kids. That’s the most important thing to me. Happy that we came to an agreement, though, very happy to be back here and happy to be playing with the 49ers again.”

The 49ers received a roster exemption for Boone but will have to make a move before adding him to the 53-man roster.

“I knew eventually we would come together and get something done,” Boone said. “I think at first it was just kind of stalemated because you had two hard stances going against each other.

“Both sides knew that we needed to come together on something and, like I said, it was a win-win for everybody.”
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- With right guard Alex Boone's holdout entering its fourth week and right tackle Anthony Davis just beginning to do individual work this week as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery, the right side of the San Francisco 49ers' offensive line is in flux.

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After all, since Davis' rookie season of 2010, the 49ers have averaged 5.1 yards per rush to the right side, the fourth-best such figure in the NFL in that time frame, per ESPN Stats & Info.

But in two preseason games, Joe Looney has started at right guard and Jonathan Martin at right tackle and the 49ers like what they have seen so far from the current right side of their line, even if the team is 0-2 while getting outscored by a combined 57-3.

Coach Jim Harbaugh said the 49ers "can win with Joe Looney" and was also effuisive in his praise for Martin, who was acquired in a trade with the Miami Dolphins for a conditional seventh-round pick in the 2015 draft.

"Jonathan Martin has done very well," Harbaugh said. "(He’s) been a great addition to our football team. Sure glad we got him. Like everybody else on our football team, (he’s) working to improve in certain areas. He’s been very effective and efficient."

Davis, it should be noted, has never missed a game in his four-year career and he told reporters this week that he did not need to play in an exhibition to be ready for the 49ers' season opener at the Dallas Cowboys on Sept. 7.

49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said if and when Davis returns, Martin’s versatility will be a boon for him and the team.

"I think John’s a guy that can play probably four positions on the offensive line," Roman said. "And at some point you’d like to be able to get him some work in those areas. We’ll see how that goes."
Examining the San Francisco 49ers' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (2)

Because of heavy competition elsewhere, the 49ers will likely only carry two quarterbacks. They finished last season that way. The competition will be to see if undrafted rookie Kory Faulkner can take McLeod Bethel-Thompson's spot on the practice squad.

RUNNING BACKS (5)

The fact that the 49ers drafted Hyde in the second round and Lattimore is healthy means some tough decisions will have to be made. Hunter is too valuable to let go. That means 2012 second-round pick LaMichael James will have difficulty making the roster.

WIDE RECEIVERS (6)

The 49ers are so much deeper here this year than last. That means they will likely have to keep six receivers. Lloyd may look good and Patton has too much potential to give up on. That means it could be tough for Kassim Osgood to make it even though he is a special teams cog.

TIGHT ENDS (3)

If Davis ends his holdout, I can't see the 49ers keeping more than three tight ends because of the glut at receiver. Unless Garrett Celek has a big camp, he may be in trouble. Carrier intrigues the 49ers because of his size and speed.

OFFENSIVE LINE (8)

Assuming Boone ends his holdout, this is a pretty nice group of eight players. It's improved from last year. A solid veteran like Adam Snyder and a promising youngster like Ryan Seymour will have trouble making the team.

DEFENSIVE LINE (9)

This is another power spot. It's deep. Players like Jerod-Eddie and Dial are too valuable to cut. Ramsey has looked good and I have a hunch the 49ers may like him too much to expose him to the waiver wire. That means Demarcus Dobbs could be in trouble.

LINEBACKERS (7)

Most teams carry six linebackers but the 49ers are stacked here, especially with NaVorro Bowman out for about half the season. Because fifth-round pick Lynch is promising he should make the roster. Dan Skuta is an excellent player, but there might not be any room for him. I could see him being one of those later-summer Trent Baalke trade specials because he has value.

CORNERBACKS (5)

This unit is in flux, but I see Johnson making it. Don't be surprised if there is some in-camp jockeying as the 49ers look for the best mix.

SAFETIES (5)

Ward, the 49ers' first-round pick, will play nickel cornerback as a rookie, but projects long term as a safety. Ventrone and Spillman should stick because they are great on special teams. Craig Dahl could be in trouble.

SPECIALISTS (3):

This group is set and it's excellent.
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NFL Nation's Bill Williamson examines the three biggest issues facing the San Francisco 49ers heading into training camp.

The holdouts: The 49ers, fresh off three straight trips to the NFC title game and seemingly poised for another long postseason run, have the weathered many storms this offseason.

Yes, there are some issues that still linger. The 49ers do not know if tight end Vernon Davis and/or guard Alex Boone will continue their holdouts into training camp.

Both players stayed away from voluntary workouts, and then became official holdouts when they did not report to mandatory minicamp last month.

Both Davis and Boone want a new deal. There are indications Boone will stay away until he gets a new contract. Davis has wavered, but he could also miss a chunk of camp.

Both players are key to the offense and would be missed. The 49ers would have to rely on youth at both spots if the holdouts linger. Vance McDonald would play for Davis and Joe Looney would play for Boone. Neither player is the caliber of the player they’d replace.

Aldon Smith: The 49ers head to training camp not completely sure of the future of the standout pass-rusher. The 49ers are set to start training camp next Wednesday. Two days later, Smith is set to be sentenced for pleading no contest to three felony gun charges. He could face some jail time.

He could also be facing an NFL suspension. If Smith is out, the 49ers will need to find some more pass-rush help, and that’s what training camp will be for. Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier helped the 49ers go 5-0 last season when Smith was in a treatment center. The team also drafted Aaron Lynch in the fifth round. If these players show a pass-rush burst in camp, that will make the 49ers feel better about the prospect of playing a long chunk without Smith.

New firepower: The 49ers have big potential on offense. Training camp and the preseason will be a time for the unit to gel and figure out the best approach to use all of the talent. The receiving crew is beefed up with addition of Stevie Johnson, through a trade with Buffalo, veteran Brandon Lloyd and fourth-round pick Bruce Ellington.

The depth of this season’s receiving group is light years ahead of last year’s unit. The thought of Johnson being the No. 3 receiver behind Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree is silly. Ellington, a South Carolina product, gives the 49ers an element they missed last season -- a burner who can take the top of the defense.

At running back -- the heart of the 49ers’ offense is still the ground attack -- Frank Gore will have second-round pick Carlos Hyde and Marcus Lattimore, who appears to be healthy after missing last season while recovering from a 2012 torn ACL.

Hyde has looked great as a runner and receiver in the offseason. The second-round pick from Ohio State has a chance to make a big impact.

All of these new weapons of course, should help the overall game of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who is entering his second full season as a starter.

The 49ers have big capabilities on offense, but the real work begins now.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Prior to the San Francisco 49ers' first mandatory minicamp practice, offensive coordinator Greg Roman said he was looking for sharp workouts.

The 49ers didn't exactly deliver.

There were plenty of drops in a mostly mundane workout. However, I wouldn't exactly say it's cause for alarm. It's June and a lot of players were held out or limited. This is not high-intensity times.

It's a time to continue to work on rhythm before the team takes a month break before starting training camp.

The 49ers worked a lot of red zone offense Tuesday. They often stalled in the red zone last season, settling for field goals.

Roman said Tuesday he hopes to see an evolved offense in 2014. With a more experienced Colin Kaepernick, deeper receiving core and rookie running back Carlos Hyde, Roman likes the potential changes.

"I think it's fair to make the statement that it's a different offense, 2014. Because we've got some new guys in," Roman said. "I think it's definitely evolved from (from when he arrived to San Francisco with coach Jim Harbaugh in 2011) and it'll probably change a little bit this year."

In other camp notes:
  • Hyde and rookie receiver Bruce Ellington each had their moments Tuesday. Roman praised Hyde for his football knowledge. "Carlos, since he got here from the draft, really impressed me as a guy that football just makes sense to him," Roman said. "If you could just tell him what to do, and you don't have to tell him too much. And that's a beautiful thing in a running back because they have a lot of adjustments to make and protection, etc."
  • Several veterans such as running back Frank Gore and Justin Smith sat out practices as they did in the voluntary practices. It's just saving older players wear-and-tear. Receivers Michael Crabtree and Stevie Johnson didn't work in team drills as the team is being cautious.
  • Receiver Brandon Lloyd continued to make some nice catches as he continues to make a push to make the 53-man roster.
  • Roman was complimentary of young tight ends Vance McDonald and Derek Carrier as they get time with Vernon Davis holding out. McDonald is set to get the most time if Davis stays away. The 2013 second-round pick had some drops Tuesday, which was a problem in his rookie season.
  • Fifth-round pick Aaron Lynch, who will be a pass-rusher, didn't practice because of a hamstring injury. Seventh-round pick Kaleb Ramsey at defensive tackle looked solid. He will be interesting to watch in training camp and in the preseason.
  • Harbaugh maintained that he thinks Gore can play three more years. He is 31 and entering the final year of his contract.
  • Blaine Gabbert has the edge to be to Kaepernick's backup. Harbaugh heaped praise on him. "Very impressed with Blaine mentally, physically -- all attributes that you'd like to see in a quarterback. He's been very good, very solid. (He's) picked up everything very quickly. It's going well. Everything is progressing well. I think you'll watch it when you have a chance to see it today and look at it for yourself. In my eye, it looks very good."
  • Harbaugh said he is optimistic right tackle Anthony Davis will be ready for the start of training camp. He had shoulder surgery in April.
  • Running back Marcus Lattimore looked good and he is working full-go. He missed all of last season as he recovered from a torn ACL he suffered at South Carolina in 2012.
  • In a hint third-round pick Marcus Martin could push Daniel Kilgore for the starting center job, Roman heaped high praise on the rookie. "I think Marcus has done a really good job coming in as a rookie. The center position, there's so much that a center has to do in this league week-to-week," Roman said. "There's just so many different adjustments and whatnot. He's done a really good job so far against our defense, not only physically, but mentally as well."
  • Roman said he is happy with the play of Joe Looney at right guard. He is working with the starters with Alex Boone holding out.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Patrick Willis may have a slightly different look in the first half of the upcoming season.

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During Tuesday's organized team activity, Willis was playing the "Mike" inside linebacker spot usually occupied by NaVorro Bowman in the 49ers' 3-4 defense. Bowman is likely out until midway through the season as he recovers from a torn ACL. Michael Wilhoite, the leading candidate to take Bowman's spot in the staring lineup, took most of the first-team repetitions Tuesday in the "Jack" inside linebacker spot Willis played last year.

Willis said the change may stick for the season. It is just a subtle change and he is comfortable there because he has played in the spot before. Willis said it is still strange being on the field without his fellow inside-linebacker star Bowman.

In other 49ers' notes:
  • Star tight end Vernon Davis and standout guard Alex Boone continued to stay away from the voluntary session as they have all offseason. They are both unhappy with their contract. Neither player will be considered a holdout until they miss the June 17-19 mandatory minicamp. Second-year tight end Vance McDonald is starting at tight end with Davis gone. McDonald appreciates the extra reps, but admitted this about Davis: "I miss the dude." Joe Looney is working in Boone's right guard spot.
  • The 49ers cut guard Al Netter to make room for special teamer Blake Costanzo on the 90-man roster.
  • Veteran defensive end Justin Smith and running back Frank Gore were onlookers during the meat of the workout. Like Gore, cornerback Chris Culliver participated in early warm-ups and the did not participate in team drills.
  • The 49ers named Dr. Fergus Connolly director of elite performance. Connolly will work intimately with football operations to develop innovative sports and performance science practices geared towards player welfare and performance optimization. He spent the last three years as a performance consultant to teams in the NFL, NBA, English Premier League and professional rugby.
  • Because several receivers were out for various reasons, reserve quarterback Josh Johnson played receiver in some drills. And he didn't look too bad. But don't expect him to change positions. It's just an emergency deal.
  • Among the banged up receivers are Steve Johnson (hamstring) and Quinton Patton (foot). Both injures are considered minor at this point. Like he did last week, Brandon Lloyd had a strong day. Chuck Jacobs, who spent last season in the practice squad, was very active Tuesday.
  • The quarterback whisperer, 49ers' head coach Jim Harbaugh, spent some one-on-one time with undrafted rookie quarterback Kory Faulkner early in Tuesday's practice.

What should 49ers do at center?

January, 27, 2014
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One area that may undergo some change in 2014 for the San Francisco 49ers is the offensive line, particularly center.

It is the one position on the line where the team may have a new starter. Jonathan Goodwin, who has been the 49ers' starting center for the past three seasons, is 35 and he is a free agent.

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There is a chance the 49ers could re-sign Goodwin -- though some wonder if he could have interest in playing for Arizona where his brother, Harold, is the offensive coordinator -- for a short-term deal. The 49ers, however, may look at this as an opportunity to develop a youngster. Daniel Kilgore, Joe Looney and Ryan Seymour are all interior lineman who could have futures. With Goodwin a free agent and guard Mike Iupati possibility entering his final season with the club, the development of all three are important.

The 49ers also could draft a center this year. A premium usually isn't put on the position in the draft, so the 49ers could potentially get a top center prospect in the second or third round. They have two picks in each round and could get a third third-rounder as a compensatory pick.

ESPN analyst Matt Williamson said he thought the 49ers' offensive line took a step back in 2013 and thinking toward the future may be smart.

“If he wants to take a one-year deal at a very team friendly rate, I say bring him back,” Williamson said. “But I would draft a guy either way reasonably high, which shouldn't be that big of a deal for a team that doesn't have a lot of huge needs.”

Because the 49ers are deep and have so many draft picks, this may be the perfect time to make some moves geared for the future on the offensive line.

49ers third-quarter checkpoint

December, 3, 2013
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The third quarter of the San Francisco 49ers' regular season is complete. Here are looks at the first and second quarters. Now let’s look at some key developments as the defending NFC champions sit at 8-4:

Story of the quarter: Beating the bad. Losing to the good. The third quarter has been a microcosm of the 49ers’ season. They started the quarter losing to top teams, Carolina and New Orleans, by a total of four points. The 49ers then blew away losing teams, Washington and St. Louis. The 49ers are 6-0 against teams with losing records and 2-4 against teams with winning records. When they win, the 49ers do their job. They have seven double-digit wins, which is tied for the league high with Denver.

Offensive MVP of the quarter: Kicker Phil Dawson. Anytime the kicker is an MVP, it means it is a team that needs to finish some drives. That is certainly the case for the 49ers, whose offense got into a funk in the losses to the Panthers and Saints. But Dawson has made sure the 49ers have scored. He has made 16 straight field goals and he made 10 in the past four games. Dawson was signed in the offseason because the 49ers wanted more consistency than they got form David Akers. It’s been a move that’s worked beautifully.

Defensive player of the quarter: Linebacker Ahmad Brooks. The San Francisco defense has been brilliant in the quarter. It played winning football even in the two losses. We could go a lot of ways here, but Brooks gets the nod. He was all over the field against New Orleans (more about that later) and Washington. Brooks is a solid complementary piece on a unit of stars. But in this quarter he stood out.

Rookie of the quarter: Safety Eric Reid. The first-round draft pick has been a steady force all season. The thing that sticks out about him is he is polished and professional. He’s looked like a five-year pro since Week 1. He was well worth moving up from No. 31 to No. 18 in the draft. He’s been an upgrade over Dashon Goldson, who went to Tampa Bay in free agency.

Disappointment of the quarter: Controversial call at New Orleans. The 49ers appeared to get the ball on a turnover with about three minutes to go, but Brooks was called for a personal foul for a hit to Drew Brees' neck. It was a questionable call because it appeared Brooks hit Brees' shoulder more than his neck. The 15-yard penalty gave the Saints new life, and New Orleans finished the drive with a game-tying field goal with 2:06 to go. The Saints won it with another field goal as time expired. The 49ers still feel like they should have won the game and be 9-3. It won’t change, but the play still hovers in Santa Clara, Calif. I think it has fueled the team and it could end up being a positive.

Biggest unanswered question of the quarter: Offensive health. The 49ers' receivers are now finally healthy. Michael Crabtree made his season debut in Week 13 and the offense instantly improved. However, the 49ers’ offense is not out of the woods. It seems like standout left tackle Joe Staley might be out for a few games with a knee sprain. Right guard Alex Boone will play left tackle and youngster Joe Looney will start for the first time. The 49ers are already playing without starting guard Mike Iupati. He may miss another week with a knee sprain. This offense has never been at full strength this season and it looks like it still may be a while.

Fearless prediction for the fourth quarter: The 49ers will make the playoffs. The 49ers are currently on pace to be the No. 6 seed in the NFC. If I had to guess, I’d say the 49ers will finish 11-5. That’s a heck of a season. But the truth is, if the 49ers want to get back to the Super Bowl, they will have to win three straight weeks on the road in January.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- There is a chance the San Francisco 49ers will have one of their standout offensive linemen back for a crucial game against visiting Seattle on Sunday.
Iupati
Niners coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday left guard Mike Iupati, who is undergoing an exam on Monday, could play in the game. Harbaugh said Iupati, who has missed the past two games with a sprained MCL, will likely be monitored throughout the week and the final determination whether he plays will likely be made closer to game day. He has been replaced by Adam Snyder.

Harbaugh did not have an update on star left tackle Joe Staley on Monday. Staley left Sunday's win against St. Louis with a knee injury. Sources said, after the game, the initial diagnosis was Staley sprained his right MCL. He could miss a couple of games. Harbaugh said Monday the team was hopeful it is not more serious.

With Staley out, right guard Alex Boone moved to left tackle and the inexperienced Joe Looney took over at right guard. Harbaugh said Monday the makeshift unit played well.

If Iupati misses Sunday's game, the 49ers will have three replacements playing. The 49ers' offense has yet to play a down this season with the starting 11 and that may not happen until Week 16.

ESPN analyst Matt Williamson said playing without so many offensive linemen at their natural spot will catch up to the 49ers if the situation lingers.

“I think Staley is one of the top three or four LTs in the NFL and is especially great in the run game and yes, he will be missed for sure,” Williamson said. “But Boone was a LT at Ohio State and came to the NFL as an OT prospect. He certainly has that body type. He might be a better 'band aid' player there for the short term than most teams have if their starting LT were to fall, but still, San Francisco is now weaker at three offensive line spots than when the starters are available."

Rapid Reaction: San Francisco 49ers

December, 1, 2013
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SAN FRANCISCO -- A few thoughts from the San Francisco 49ers' 23-13 victory over the St. Louis Rams:

What it means: The 49ers strenghened their hold on the sixth and final spot in the NFC playoffs and improved their record to 8-4. NFC West rival Arizona lost in Philadelphia, to drop to 7-5. The 49ers dominated, and it was their seventh victory of the season by double digits. They are now 6-0 against teams with losing records. The 49ers struggled against the Rams in 2012, going 0-1-1. This season, the 49ers beat the Rams by a combined score of 58-24.

Stock watch: 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree made his season debut, and his impact was immediately felt. Receiver Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis got open more, and quarterback Colin Kaepernick looked comfortable and confident. It’s no coincidence.

Injuries continue: It wasn’t all great news for the 49ers. Standout left tackle Joe Staley left the game early with a right knee injury. It was quickly determined that he would not return to the game. Right guard Alex Boone moved to left tackle, and rookie Joe Looney took over for Boone. The team is already playing without standout guard Mike Iupati, who has a knee sprain.

What’s next: The 49ers host bitter NFC West rival Seattle. The Seahawks have a stranglehold on the NFC West, but this game is important for the 49ers, who have been blown out in the past two games against Seattle. Not only do the 49ers need to compile wins, but they also have to send the Seahawks a message in case they meet in the postseason.

Around the NFC West: 'A cheap shot'

August, 28, 2013
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The hits keep coming for San Francisco 49ers backup guard Joe Looney after his low block left Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams with an injured knee.

We discussed the block Monday and I concluded that Looney did not violate playing rules when he struck Williams in the knee during the third quarter of an exhibition game Sunday night. There was no penalty flag on the play. The NFL has no plans to fine Looney.

The question was whether Looney had violated unwritten rules. Williams' teammates are predictably standing up for their guy. Looney is predictably saying he meant no harm. I give more credence to what retired offensive lineman Jeff Saturday said while serving in his role as NFL analyst for ESPN. We might normally expect one offensive lineman to stand up for another, but Saturday did not do that in this situation.

"It's definitely a cheap shot," Saturday said. "There was no reason to go low on a guy whose back is turned toward you. ... I've pulled off many a day on a cut block or when you think it's even questionable. You just don't do it. Everybody knows we're here to earn a living for our families and represent more than barbaric play on the field. As a player and as a man you have to have higher principles than even sometimes the rules."

49ers coach Jim Harbaugh used the word "unfortunate" to describe the play.

"I don't think it was a dirty play, don't think it was intentional, don't think there is any malice in the heart of Joe Looney," Harbaugh told reporters.

Williams suffered a hyperextended knee with a bone bruise and postular capsular strain, but no ligament damage. It's not yet clear how quickly he might return.

Another look at Joe Looney's low block

August, 26, 2013
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You can bet coach Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers would have questions this morning if a Minnesota Vikings player had unnecessarily struck top defensive lineman Justin Smith in the knee Sunday night.

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For that reason, I'll be interested in hearing the reaction from Harbaugh and 49ers players regarding the low block 49ers guard Joe Looney delivered against Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams. The play was winding down and Williams was looking over his shoulder as four Vikings players surrounded running back LaMichael James before tackling James for a 7-yard loss. Looney went low and struck the unsuspecting Williams in the right knee, bending the knee at an awkward angle and knocking Williams from the game.

Rules against illegal peel-back blocks prevent a player who is aligned in the tackle box at the snap from initiating contact "on the side and below the waist against an opponent if the blocker is moving toward his own end line and he approaches the opponent from behind or from the side."

Looney did not strike Williams from the side. He struck Williams from the front, but Williams did not see it coming because he was looking back over his shoulder.

"The guys upstairs [Vikings coaches] were telling me that was one of those where we will probably want to send it into the league, so I’m looking forward to seeing it," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said after the game. "They were pretty upset when they saw it. I’ve got to take a look at it."

Vikings defensive end Jared Allen called the play dirty. Williams said he needed to see replays before judging Looney's intent.

"I didn’t see him at all," Williams said. "I was just running towards the ball. He might’ve peeled back and got me. I don’t know where he came from. He hit me pretty low. We’ll watch it and see if it was dirty or not."

I've watched the replay several times. My initial reaction was that Looney's block was unnecessary because James appeared trapped in the backfield. The block appeared dirty in spirit because Williams could not see Looney approaching. However, James was initially trying to escape toward Looney's side when Looney started to get into blocking position. Williams was running toward Looney as if to cut off James. Looney was already committed to the block by the time James reversed course to make Williams less relevant to the play.

There was no penalty on the play. If Looney did not violate a written rule, the question becomes whether he violated an unwritten one by taking out an opponent at the knee when that opponent could not protect himself and probably wasn't going to factor in the play at that point. The idea that an unestablished player such as Looney would unnecessarily take out a six-time Pro Bowl choice at the knee during a preseason game isn't going to sit well with some, even if the play did not violate rules.

I'll update as the situation comes into clearer focus.

Last week, we considered whether 35 offensive snaps and 16 pass routes were enough for the San Francisco 49ers to fully assess second-year wide receiver A.J. Jenkins.

Turns out it was enough.

The 49ers traded Jenkins to the Kansas City Chiefs for receiver Jon Baldwin, another disappointing first-round draft choice. This move is good for the 49ers in that it shows they'll move on from a disappointing player without carrying him on their roster just to keep up appearances. The move is also bad for the 49ers in that Jenkins' departure after making zero regular-season receptions reflects poorly on the team's decision to draft him.

Baldwin, chosen 26th overall in 2011 by the Chiefs' previous leadership, has 41 receptions for 579 yards and two touchdowns in 26 regular-season games. Jenkins, the 30th overall choice in 2012, played in three games without making a reception. He becomes the 49ers' highest-profile personnel misfire since Trent Baalke became general manager and Jim Harbaugh became head coach.

The 49ers had hoped Jenkins would provide a needed vertical speed element to their offense. They could seemingly still use that element as they look to create better matchups for receiver Anquan Boldin, who beats defenses with strength, not speed. Tight end Vernon Davis does provide the 49ers with a deep threat and he has gotten practice reps at wide receiver, but Jenkins was seen as a key player the team hoped to develop this offseason.

Baldwin is a different type of player. He stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 230 pounds and had a 40-yard dash time in the 4.5-second range. Jenkins is 6-0 and 192 pounds with a 40-yard time in the 4.4-range.

The 49ers and Chiefs played one another in a preseason game Friday night. The Chiefs' big and physical starting corner, Sean Smith, roughed up Jenkins and shut him down. The 49ers will face similar cornerbacks in NFC West play. Jenkins was not going to match up well against them unless he could get off the line of scrimmage and put his speed to use.

Davis, safety Donte Whitner and other 49ers players polled this offseason said they thought Jenkins would be the young wide receiver to emerge as the preseason unfolded. Jenkins lost a fumble after his lone reception against Denver in the preseason opener. A penalty against an offensive lineman for holding wiped out a 21-yard reception Jenkins made against the Chiefs' backups.

LaMichael James, Joe Looney, Darius Fleming, Trenton Robinson, Jason Slowey and Cam Johnson were the other players San Francisco drafted in 2012. Fleming suffered a season-ending injury this offseason. Slowey is no longer with the team. James is fighting for playing time at running back. Looney, Robinson and Johnson are backups.

Last offseason, Harbaugh defended Jenkins from media criticism. The defending appeared justified, in my view, because Jenkins was just getting started. One training camp generally isn't enough to evaluate a player. Thirty-five regular-season snaps generally isn't enough, either. This move by the 49ers validates outside criticisms of Jenkins. The team wouldn't be moving on from a 2012 first-round draft choice if it thought Jenkins would have factored.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- For the first time since 2004, the San Francisco 49ers are conducting training camp without Alex Smith as part of the quarterback equation. Throw in a long, growing list of injuries, and the NFC West's most established team is tougher to recognize.

I spent two days in camp without seeing starters Aldon Smith, NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis or Jonathan Goodwin practice. Receiver Michael Crabtree was already out, of course. A.J. Jenkins, Mario Manningham, Kyle Williams and Kendall Hunter also were not practicing. Third cornerback Chris Culliver, meanwhile, suffered a torn ACL.

Fortunately for the 49ers, it's still early August. They know how to develop talent and coach to players' strengths. But for San Francisco to win a third consecutive NFC West crown, the team could use better luck with injuries from this point forward.

Beyond the injury concerns, all signs point toward a continued rise for quarterback Colin Kaepernick. This is becoming his team because of the way he works and because he's such a talent. Offensive and defensive players alike say so. Kaepernick often shows up for work before 6 in the morning. He dusts teammates up the hills they run in nearby San Jose.

Outsiders tempted to brand Kaepernick -- after 10 NFL starts -- as a one-read quarterback or a read-option quarterback aren't seeing what coordinator Greg Roman is seeing.

"He doesn't look at things in a rote fashion," Roman said. "He can see big picture. He understands the trickle-down. Say you give him a play, he is going to look at it in his mind versus all different coverages. All those little acetates are going to fall down at once in his mind, and then he understands the impact and 'hey, maybe we should put this guy in this spot, let him run this and let what's-his-name do this.' He is very interactive."

The 49ers still plan to use two backs frequently and lean hard on the running game, but it's not so much because a young quarterback is limiting their options. The collaborative aspect Roman referenced is telling in that regard.

"Last year, I started to bounce things off him because I started to really trust him," Roman said. "I liked what I was hearing and seeing. Now, he has a hand in the pot, too. That is what you want. He is the quarterback. You can evolve with him, and he'll be part of that evolution process. I just love getting him thinking, because he is great."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeAnquan Boldin
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezAs injuries mount at receiver, the offseason signing of Anquan Boldin looks better by the day.
1. Attrition at wide receiver. Every 49ers fan should be sending letters of gratitude to general manager Trent Baalke for acquiring receiver Anquan Boldin before the team absolutely, positively had to have him.

The situation at receiver is going to improve as Williams, Jenkins and Manningham in particular get healthy. Crabtree might even return late in the season.

For now, though, the 49ers have the following behind Boldin at the position: Austin Collie, Lavelle Hawkins, Charly Martin, Chad Hall, Ricardo Lockette, Marlon Moore, Kassim Osgood, Chuck Jacobs and Quinton Patton, who has one healthy hand and is running routes under orders not to catch any passes.

The 49ers need Jenkins to be a factor, but that's not going to happen until the 2012 first-round choice returns from a sore hamstring. Jenkins got safety Donte Whitner's vote when I asked Whitner which of the young wideouts would emerge. Whitner said he thought Jenkins' speed would allow him to "take the top off" opposing defenses. Again, that can't happen with Jenkins on the sideline.

San Francisco does have the ability to use two tight ends and/or two running backs, lessening the need for multiple wideouts.

2. Secondary concerns. Culliver's injury and free safety Dashon Goldson's departure in free agency could make the 49ers worse in the secondary for the short term. The team has leaned on its dominant front seven to protect the back end. That will be the preferred formula this season.

Pushing first-round pick Eric Reid into the lineup at free safety sounds good in theory. He's going to be the starter eventually. Why not let him play? Craig Dahl has much more experience. C.J. Spillman and Trenton Robinson are in the mix, too.

One consideration: San Francisco opens the season against Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck before making a trip to St. Louis, where the Rams beat the 49ers last season. The 49ers will want to let the safety race play out through preseason before making a decision.

At corner, Nnamdi Asomugha appeared likely to step into Culliver's spot as the third corner, but Tramaine Brock was the player defensive coordinator Vic Fangio called upon first. Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers are the starters, with Rogers shifting inside in sub packages.

As for Asomugha? He made plays on the ball when I visited practice, but the ever-direct Fangio offered a mixed assessment.

"He's had some good days out here and some days where you weren’t sure if he was going to still have it," Fangio said. "I think we're kind of in between with him right now. Hopefully, he'll be able to still have some gas left in his tank to go out there and play like he did prior to going to Philadelphia. So, I think the jury is still out there."

Fangio passed on an opportunity to blame Asomugha's struggles with the Eagles on the scheme Philadelphia was running.

"I think there's some of that, but Nnamdi is at this stage in his career where some guys start losing, their physical skills start to diminish. We just have to see if that’s entering into his picture, too, or not."

3. Potential defensive tweaks. Defensive ends Justin Smith and Ray McDonald rank among the NFL's top five defensive linemen in total snaps played over the past two seasons, counting playoffs. The heavy use might have contributed to the torn triceps Smith suffered late last season.

The defense wasn't the same with Smith on the sideline, and was limited upon his return. The plan this season calls for expanding the rotation along the line. Ian Williams and free-agent addition Glenn Dorsey will be key to making that happen. And once second-round choice Tank Carradine gets healthy, San Francisco will have another option to help keep its veterans fresh.

The 49ers have gone away from the more traditional 3-4 scheme they employed when Aubrayo Franklin was their two-gapping nose tackle a few years back. They still run a base 3-4, but the front is more aggressive in getting up the field. Dorsey, who appeared miscast in the 3-4 scheme Kansas City ran after drafting him fifth overall in 2008, should fit better with San Francisco.

"You have a lot more freedom," Dorsey said of the 49ers' scheme relative to the Chiefs' old scheme. "There's not just staying on blocks. It's taking on blocks and you get to penetrate a lot more, go off in gaps and stuff like that and then move around. A lot of stunts and stuff. It's fun."

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

The 49ers have the front office, coaching staff, quarterback, offensive line, running backs and defensive front seven to contend for a championship. They also have one of the NFL's most dynamic tight ends, Vernon Davis. Just about every team in the league should envy the 49ers' roster even with the injury concerns. Kaepernick appears supremely driven. He should improve given the support system around him. Also, the 49ers have most of their tougher-looking games at home, where they should be expected to win a high percentage of the time. A relatively easy road schedule could help San Francisco gain in the standings against Seattle and St. Louis. Those teams face tougher road schedules.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

[+] EnlargeBoone
Michael Zagaris/Getty ImagesThe 49ers have been resourceful in finding starters like Alex Boone.
The injury situation is a concern. Competition within the NFC West will be fierce. The 49ers have more questions to answer this offseason after parting with Delanie Walker, Goldson and a few role players. Change isn't always bad, of course. This organization has consistently found upgrades such as Alex Boone and Bowman when flushing out starters. Still, there is some uncertainty, at least until the 49ers see how the replacements perform. And if the pace of injuries keeps up, the incline could become too steep.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • British Olympic discus champion Lawrence Okoye will need time to develop. His musculature stands out even among his fellow defensive linemen, but his football inexperience shows on the practice field. He's still learning technique and how to make his 6-foot-6 frame work for him.
  • Boone, listed at 6-8 and 300 pounds, is about as impressive looking as Okoye. He had the other linemen laughing and shaking their heads when he ended a post-practice soak in a ground-level ice tub by launching his body upright from a lying position in one violent motion, sending water and ice flying. He stuck the landing, too.
  • Strong safeties and fullbacks tend to relish contact. I enjoyed watching Whitner and Bruce Miller cross paths at speed during drills featuring only minimal contact. They clipped one another hard enough to pop their pads without putting themselves at risk for injury or attracting heat from coaches.
  • One of the traits separating Frank Gore from other running backs is his ability to maneuver amid heavy traffic on inside runs. Left tackle Joe Staley: "I've never seen a better runner in NFL history between the 'A' gaps. He finds that tiniest crease. One of the other things that sets him apart is that he can make cuts in the 'A' gaps, too. You see other runners go through the 'A' gaps and they just try to smash into someone and it's a 3-yard gain. Frank gets to that 'A' gap and he makes a quick cut and all of a sudden a 3-yard run turns into a 12-, 14-yard run."
  • Back in March, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh had high praise for Lockette, a receiver the team signed from the Seattle Seahawks last season. I took note when Harbaugh appeared to be offering forcefully delivered corrections to Lockette during practice. The head coach probably wouldn't bother if he thought the player wasn't worth the trouble. Harbaugh obviously sees something in Lockette, but how will that translate?
  • Left guard Joe Looney and center Daniel Kilgore worked together with the starting offensive line Friday while starters Mike Iupati and Jonathan Goodwin sat out (Goodwin is recovering from injury, while Iupati sat out a few plays after limping off). Seeing Looney and Kilgore work together with the starters brought into focus the line's longer-term future. Will the team work out a contract extension for Iupati? Players such as Kaepernick and Aldon Smith could become higher priorities to re-sign after this season. Just a thought.
  • Change-of-pace running back LaMichael James is catching the ball well at this point.
  • It's not yet clear how quickly second-round pick Vance McDonald will develop as a reliable blocker. Boldin's ability in that area provides flexibility.
  • Players off-limits to contact typically wear black jerseys so teammates know to avoid hitting them. Patton, a rookie fourth-round pick, was in another category. He was running pass routes as usual, but the coaching staff told him to let the quartebacks' passes sail past him. The team wants Patton to get reps without risking further injury to a finger. Patton caught one pass anyway. I saw him catch another ball with one hand. Patton was the only player wearing a blue jersey, making him particularly easy to spot.
  • Arizona Cardinals kicker Jay Feely, 37, recently said one of the team's rookies confessed to mistaking Feely for an assistant coach all offseason. I'll admit to briefly mistaking the 49ers' 38-year-old kicker, Phil Dawson, for a team staffer when he arrived at the post-practice interview tent wearing running shoes with no socks and a pullover on his 5-foot-11 frame. Dawson, who is new to the 49ers, said he obsesses over weather conditions, to the point that he is constantly checking them using an app whose manufacturer he wouldn't reveal. Although Candlestick Park is known for rough conditions, the winds blow almost constantly at team headquarters -- something to keep in mind when the 49ers move into their new stadium across the street in 2014.
  • Linebacker Nick Moody, a sixth-round pick, has stood out early, but he's transitioning from safety and will need time to develop. Fangio put it best: "I think he’s got a lot of good tools in his toolbox. He just isn’t a union carpenter yet."
  • The talk of tight end Davis taking reps at wide receiver was pretty much just that: talk. Davis will remain a tight end. However, I did see him line up outside the yard-line numbers a couple times in one practice. He has the speed to do that on occasion. His route-running has improved over the years as well. A third season in the same offense is another important factor for expanding Davis' game. Still, he's going to be a tight end.

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