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Athletic Looney ‘Appreciates’ Move to Tight End

A seventh-round pick as a defensive lineman in 2018, James Looney was "all-in" after moving to tight end late in 2019.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – In 2018, the Green Bay Packers used a seventh-round draft pick on James Looney, a defensive lineman a bit short on size but long on athleticism.

One day late in the 2019 season, general manager Brian Gutekunst and coach Matt LaFleur pulled Looney aside with a bold idea. On Dec. 6, Looney showed up practice with a new position (tight end), a new jersey number (49) and a new lease on his professional life after spending most of his first two seasons on the practice squad.

“I feel like I’m a pretty athletic guy,” Looney said. “They put me at tight end for certain teams that we played and certain looks that they wanted. It just worked out from there. I guess Gutey and Coach LaFleur seen something that they really liked in me. They called me over and changed me midseason.”

As Looney talked from his place in Dallas on Saturday, he was no longer a 287-pound defensive tackle getting ready for a third run at a roster spot. Instead, he was a 256-pound tight end with an obvious enthusiasm for what’s to come. With older brother Joe Looney, who is expected to start at center for the Dallas Cowboys, they’ve been working out to stay ready for whenever players are allowed to report to their teams.

“I’m honestly thankful for the opportunity,” Looney said. “I always felt like I could lose a little bit of weight and play a position more to my size. I’m really appreciative of Gutey and LaFleur for giving me this opportunity. It’s been a really good transition. I always thought I was going to stay on the defensive side of the ball. When they told me offense, I was all-in. I was excited. It’s good. It’s really good, new energy. Honestly, I’m just blessed that God gave me the opportunity. Not a lot of guys get a second chance to play a different position in the NFL. I’m super-blessed.”

Looney failed to make the roster as a rookie and spent most of 2018 on the practice squad until a late-season promotion that saw him play 19 snaps in three games. In 2019, he fell short of a roster spot again and spent the entire season on the practice squad.

With the season extending to the NFC Championship Game, Looney got about six weeks to focus on his new position. With a plan crafted by strength and conditioning coordinator Chris Gizzi, Looney figures he dropped 15 pounds before the end of the season.

“With diet and weight room, everything was made for me to not lose too much weight too fast where it would have hurt me during the week,” Looney said. “It was built for me to gain the right muscle in the right places – a lot of hamstring work, for example, that can help me in a different position.”

Going full-time into the tight ends room allowed Looney to soak up the wealth of experience and knowledge possessed by Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis. As Jace Sternberger and Robert Tonyan have said, Graham and Lewis were willing mentors.

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“It was easier being around those dudes,” Looney said. “When you’re in the D-line room, you snack a little bit more often. Jimmy, from a standpoint of eating, he literally doesn’t put anything bad in his body. He’ll laugh at you and literally talk about you if you’re eating something bad. He’s a guy who lives by it. I wouldn’t even call it a diet. That’s his routine. That’s one thing I learned from Marcedes, too. He has a great routine. ’Cedes actually took me under his wing the first year, even though I wasn’t at the tight end position. He was telling me about the saunas, hot tubs, cold tubs. I follow a lot of his routine to this day. Those guys got it down pat. I’m really thankful I had both of them in the room. And from the standpoint of transitioning, those guys were always giving me little tips. Especially ’Cedes in the run game, he’s just an animal. I definitely took the positives from both of those guys and, hopefully, I can implement them into my game.”

Looney is an intriguing prospect at tight end for the same reason he was an intriguing prospect as a defensive lineman. For instance, at the 2018 Scouting Combine, Looney ran his 20-yard shuttle in 4.37 seconds. That would have tied for seventh-fastest of the 13 tight ends to do the shuttle at the 2020 Scouting Combine. Of the 15 tight ends to do the vertical jump at this year’s Combine, Looney’s leap of 35.5 inches would have tied for fourth.

And remember, the 6-foot-3 Looney was 287 pounds at the time.

“I grew up playing a lot of skill positions and then I found the refrigerator later on going into high school, and that’s when I started making the transition to O-line/D-line,” he said. “Me and my brother have always prided ourselves on our athleticism. Even growing up as kids, just playing on the street, playing quarterback, running back, wide receiver. I played a lot of skill positions when I was younger. As I grew older and got bigger and started eating more, I transitioned to the linemen positions.”

Looney was a four-year starter on the offensive line at Lake Worth (Fla.) High School. As a junior at Cal, he scooped a fumble and returned it 25 yards against USC.

When’s the last time he scored a touchdown?

“Ooh, that’s a good one. Probably in little league,” he said. “They had some plays for me in high school to play fullback and running back but I don’t think we ever got the opportunity to run them.”

Looney will have to wait to run plays at tight end for the Packers, with the COVID-19 pandemic wiping out NFL offseason programs. He’s fortunate to have his brother, who started 16 games for the Cowboys in 2018, as a workout partner and teacher of the finer points of blocking. Looney raved several times about Green Bay’s coaches, including tight ends coach Justin Outten and offensive quality-control coach Kevin Koger, who frequently works alongside Outten.

At some point, , football will return. Looney can’t wait to compete for a roster spot alongside Sternberger, Lewis, Tonyan and third-round pick Josiah Deguara.

“I’m obviously very excited,” Looney said. “We wall want to be back in the facility. This is a great time. I love the offseason. It’s just great to be around the guys and get that team camaraderie. Coach LaFleur preaches it and we live by it. We have a real close-knit team, and that had a lot to do with our success. We have some really good guys. Z (Za’Darius Smith), Preston (Smith) – all the leaders on our team, they always made you want to stay around the facility to talk, have fun and just kick it. I’m excited to get back. There’s nothing like re-creating that team atmosphere. I can’t wait to get back and get these plays down, go through the reps and actually do it and hopefully make this team and help us in any way to make it to the Super Bowl.”