Carl Pickens was one of the most dominating receivers in the NFL from 1994-1996. Pickens came out of Tennessee after his Junior season to enter the 1992 NFL Draft, where he was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the second round. Carl had some attitude issues in the Cincinnati, which tarnished his time with the Bengals, but he is still one of the best receivers in their history.
When Pickens joined the Bengals, he came with rookie first round quarterback David Klinger, who would go one to be one of the many first round quarterback busts for the Bengals. Klingler was the backup to Boomer Esiason, who was playing in his final season with Cincinnati, and the Bengals were not a very dynamic team in 1992, as they only threw for 2,284 yards as a team. The leading receiver that season was Tim McGee who had 35 catches for 408 yards and three touchdowns, but Carl Pickens was starting to turn heads in his rookie season. Pickens started 10 games and finished the year with 26 catches for 326 yards and one score. Those numbers don’t look special, but they were good enough for Carl to be named Rookie of the Year. Pickens would continue to improve, but what he did between 1994-1996 was truly special.
The Bengals entered 1994 with David Klinger clinging to his starting job, and after going 0-7 to start the season he was replaced by Jeff Blake. Blake brought more excitement and a big arm to the offense, and Carl Pickens quickly became his favorite target. The Bengals only won three games this season, but Pickens finished with 71 catches for 1,127 yards and 11 touchdowns, which was the third most by a receiver. Blake liked to throw the deep pass, and he connected with Pickens on six pass plays of 50 yards or more this season. The stage was set for Carl to dominate, and he had his best season in 1995.
Personally, I will never forget Pickens 1995 season. I was playing in my second year of Fantasy Football, and I had fallen in love with Pickens the season earlier watching his highlights on George Michael’s Sports Machine. I grabbed Pickens as the third receiver off the board that year in the third round, and he led me to my first championship. Jeff Blake was the starter full time, and the Bengals began to play better football and Pickens led the way. He finished the season with 99 catches for 1,234 yards, which was tops in the AFC, but led the NFL with 17 touchdowns. Carl was dominant, but he lacked the longer catches this season, as Darney Scott came on to take over that role.
In 1996 Carl showed that he might take a step back after his career season, but not by that much. Once again, the longer catches eluded Pickens in 1996, but he finished the season with 100 catches (3rd in NFL) for 1,180 yards (8th in NFL) with 12 touchdowns (3rd in NFL). Blake to Pickens was becoming normality in Cincinnati, although the two were never able to take the next step to make the Bengals a playoff team.
Pickens dominated the NFL during this span with 270 catches for 3,541 yards and 40 touchdowns. Unfortunately, Pickens was not the best locker room guy, and had issues with the front office. An injury in 1997 allowed the team to start planning for life without Pickens, and even after a resurgent 1998 season, he was no longer looked at as the answer in Cincinnati, and he was shown the door after the 1999 season. Pickens still ranks second all-time in receiving for the Bengals with 530 catches for 6,887 yards and 75 scores.