Niners' No. 6 slot is sweet spot in NFL draft

The only previous time in their 61-year history that the 49ers have had the No. 6 overall pick in the NFL draft, they struck gold with an 8-time All-Pro who played 16 years with the team on his way to the Hall of Fame. The Niners might not get that lucky this time, but - after S.F. had the No. 1 pick of the litter in last year's draft - you won't hear any complaints about where the team's situated in 2006. The 49ers have the Lucky Six slot, which recent history shows is an optimum place to be.

San Francisco's placement in the first round of the upcoming draft is an advantageous spot for a team looking to add an impact performer without the hype and high price tag that goes with players selected just a few spots earlier.

The 49ers already are lucky to be at No. 6 in the first round before the draft even takes place. They earned that position by winning a coin toss with the Oakland Raiders at the NFL Combine in late February.

The 49ers took a mighty step forward in this year's draft when Scot McCloughan, the team's vice president of player personnel, made the right call in a game of pure chance. The coin flipped in the air, McCloughan called "tails," and the 49ers moved into the No. 6 slot when he coin landed tails up.

Recent history – and, in the 49ers' case, history that goes back a little farther – shows that the sixth slot is indeed a sweet spot to be.

Of the past 10 players taken at that position in the draft, five became fixtures on Super Bowl teams, four have become Pro Bowl stars and three have gained regular acclaim among the game's very best performers at their respective positions.

"Winning the coin toss gives us a great opportunity to focus on getting the best possible player at any position to help our team." McCloughan said. "It puts us one slot ahead of where we might have been and we can take a player we have our eye on."

The difference between No. 6 and No. 7 could be significant this year because of the dynamics involved with the super talents available at the top of the draft. It's very likely the player the Niners will take at No. 6 wouldn't have been available one pick later if San Francisco had dropped to that selection in the draft.

The 49ers have drafted sixth in the first round only once in the team's 61-year history, but the team hit the jackpot with that pick.

Using a selection acquired from the Pittsburgh Steelers – the first of San Francisco's three first-round picks in 1961 – the 49ers drafted halfback Jimmy Johnson out of UCLA.

Johnson went on to play 16 seasons for the 49ers during his Hall of Fame career, earning All-Pro honors eight times and playing in five Pro Bowls over a six-year span. Recognized as one of the best man-to-man defenders in NFL history, Johnson ranks second behind Ronnie Lott (himself a No. 8 overall draft selection in 1981) on the team's all-time charts with 47 interceptions returned for 615 yards.

Over the past decade, two teams have grabbed players with the No. 6 overall selection that could be well on their way to possible Hall of Fame careers.

The Seattle Seahawks selected Florida State's Walter Jones with the sixth pick in 1997, and Jones has gone on to become one of the most dominant offensive tackles of his time. A franchise cornerstone, Jones led Seattle to the first Super Bowl in the franchise's 30-year history this past season.

A perennial All-Pro, Jones has set the standard at that position along with St. Louis' Orlando Pace, who was the No. 1 overall selection in that same 1997 draft.

St. Louis had the sixth overall pick in 1998 and 1999, and the Rams didn't miss either time as they added key parts to a team that would reach the Super Bowl twice in a three-year span.

The Rams grabbed Nebraska defensive end Grant Wistrom at No. 6 in 1998, and he gave St. Louis six quality seasons as a top pass rusher before getting big money in 2004 free agency to move to Seattle, where he reached the third Super Bowl of his career last season. Wistrom, who has tormented the 49ers twice a year since he entered the NFL, has 49 career sacks and remains in the upper echelon of NFL players at his position.

The Rams did even better at No. 6 in 1999 when they selected North Carolina State receiver Torry Holt, who was a key part during his rookie season in St. Louis' "Greatest Show on Turf" that won the Super Bowl.

The 49ers would love to catch a receiver of Holt's potential with the No. 6 pick this year, but there is none out there of that caliber. The first receiver off the board April 29 in New York City might last into the bottom third of the first round - or longer.

But Holt proved well worthy of his high selection. After recording 52 catches as a rookie, Holt has had at least 80 receptions and 1,300 yards receiving in each of his six seasons since then, including career-best totals of 117 receptions for 1,696 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2003. With 619 receptions for 9,487 yards (a 15.3 average) and 54 touchdowns in just seven NFL seasons, Holt is on his way to a Hall of Fame career and on pace to chase Jerry Rice's NFL records if he plays long enough.

The chain of standout No. 6 picks continued in 2000 and 2001 when a couple of stud defensive tackles were taken. Corey Simon (Philadelphia) and Richard Seymour (New England) both immediately asserted themselves with their respective teams and developed into Pro Bowlers on the way to taking their teams to the Super Bowl.

Seymour, in fact, has three Super Bowl championship rings to show for his five seasons with the Patriots. Simon and Seymour combined for 57.5 sacks in their first five NFL seasons.

Two more defensive tackles were taken at No. 6 in 2002 and 2003, but neither has been able to assert himself as quickly as Simon or Seymour. In fact, the jury still is out regarding whether Ryan Sims (Kansas City) and Johnathan Sullivan (New Orleans) can match the success of their recent predecessors at No. 6.

Sims has battled injury problems, playing in only six games last season and six as a rookie in 2002. During the two seasons in between, he played in 31 of Kansas City's 32 games as a regular in the Chiefs' line rotation and has five career sacks.

Sullivan has been a contributor with the Saints but has failed to distinguish himself as anything more in his first three NFL seasons.

Kellen Winslow Jr. was labeled as a can't-miss prospect who would follow in the distinguished footsteps of his Hall of Fame father when he joined the Cleveland Browns as the sixth overall pick in 2004.

But Winslow's career has been derailed by injuries. He tore up his knee after two games in his rookie year and missed the rest of the season, then suffered career-threatening injuries in a motorcycle accident the next year that wiped out his entire 2005 season. He still is projected to be a dominant player at tight end if he can return at full strength from his injuries.

Last year's No. 6 pick, versatile West Virginia cornerback/kick returner Pacman Jones, had a solid rookie season with the Tennessee Titans. Jones worked his way into the starting lineup and finished with 44 tackles and 10 passes defensed. He displayed great promise as a returner, averaging 26.2 yards on his 43 kickoff returns, including five returns of 40 yards or more. He also averaged 9.4 yards on 29 punt returns, bringing back one for a touchdown.

Only one of the past 10 sixth picks has ended up as a certifiable bust, and the 49ers know all about him. In fact, he played a significant role in the beginning of the end of their two-decade dynasty.

Lawrence Phillips, the flashy Nebraska tailback, lasted only two seasons in St. Louis after the Rams took him with the No. 6 pick in 1996. He strung together pedestrian rushing seasons of 632 and 633 yards with the Rams, but his suspect behavior and off-the-field issues took their toll and he was out of the league by 1998.

Niners general manager Bill Walsh, looking to add some spark at tailback after the unexpected loss of Garrison Hearst to a career-threatening ankle condition, took a chance on Phillips in 1999. It proved to be Phillips' last chance.

Phillips lasted only until November before he was dumped due to insubordination, effectively ending his troubled career. But that didn't happen until after Phillips had missed a block on blitzing safety Aeneas Williams in a September game at Arizona.

Williams slammed into quarterback Steve Young, sending San Francisco's seven-time Pro Bowler crashing to the turf with a concussion that ended his Hall of Fame career. Young never played again, and after a 3-1 start, the 49ers lost their next eight games and 11 of their final 12 to finish with fewer than 10 victories for the first time in 17 seasons.

Of course, the 49ers weren't the team that drafted Phillips with the sixth pick. They figure to do much better when their shot at No. 6 comes this year.

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