SANTA CLARA -- When the 49ers take the field Saturday night in their exhibition opener against the Houston Texans, only two offensive linemen will be in the same spot they started at least one game for the team last season.
One Joe is easy to guess. The other classifies as a bit of a surprise.
Left tackle Joe Staley has been entrenched as the 49ers’ starting left tackle since 2008, his second season in the NFL.
A year ago, the 49ers lined up Daniel Kilgore, Dillon Farrell and Marcus Martin at center before Joe Looney got his first career start late in the season at the Seattle Seahawks. With Kilgore still in an orthopedic walking boot after undergoing follow-up surgery on his fractured left lower leg in June, Looney has been taking the snaps with the first-team offense.
“I’ve been moved around on the offensive line a bunch the last couple of years, and it’s all about where the team needs me,” Looney said.
Looney’s lone start at Seattle did not go well. Former offensive coordinator Greg Roman rarely criticized players publicly, but he did not sugarcoat Looney’s performance in the 49ers’ 17-7 loss.
“He had a tough game,” Roman said of Looney. “There were some things there that fundamentally he could have done better. You know, first start as a center, in that environment, against that crew which is pretty good – that’s tough duty. But I think he could have played better.”
Looney did not disagree with the assessment. Two weeks later, Looney started at right guard in the season-finale and played much better in a 20-17 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.
“I think he was challenging me as a player to make sure I was getting better every day, and make sure I was getting my technique right,” Looney said on Wednesday. “I had the opportunity to start that last game against Arizona here, and he came up to me and said he wanted to challenge me. It’s all good and fair because I want to be the best player I can be.”
The 49ers are still looking for the right pieces for the right places on the 49ers’ offensive line.
“You know at the start of camp, two plays out of five, you think you got the right pieces and then you get to this part of camp and you’re thinking maybe seven out of 10 plays you’ve got the right pieces,” 49ers offensive coordinator Geep Chryst said. “But you’re trying to work where every snap you feel like you’ve got the right pieces.”
Staley and Alex Boone appear locked in as the starters at tackle and guard on the left side. (Boone was moved from right guard to left guard at the beginning of training camp.) And veteran Erik Pears appears to have the job wrapped up at right tackle. Looney is working primarily at center, and Marcus Martin has been regularly stationed at right guard.
Ideally, the 49ers would like to settle on their offensive line as quickly as possible. But they also want the competition to run its course to feel confident they are going with their five best offensive linemen.
“We’re going to get one more practice under our belt before we start to talk about playing time just in Houston,” Chryst said. “And then at some point in time, the fourth preseason game, you’ve got to figure out your final 53.
“So that’s going to be a lot of young guys really competing hard. Somewhere right after that first preseason game but before the final preseason game. And I think practice can give you a lot of confidence moving forward, but we’re not there yet. We’re still looking forward to going down to Houston.”
The 49ers on Wednesday released their first unofficial depth chart of training camp. And although nothing is set in stone, the depth chart is indicative of how the players have been lining up in practices.
Left tackle: 74-Joe Staley, 68-Patrick Miller, 76-Sean Hooey
Left guard: 75-Alex Boone, 61-Andrew Tiller
Center: 78-Joe Looney, 62-Ian Silberman, 56-Dillon Farrell
Right guard: 66-Marcus Martin, 60-Brandon Thomas
Right tackle: 71-Erik Pears, 77-Trent Brown, 64-Justin Renfrow