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Lucky No. 31: A history of the Bengals picking 31st in the NFL Draft

Three out of four ain’t bad.

Syndication: Cincinnati
Carl Pickens leaves the field with quarterback Jeff Blake in 1999.
Gary Landers, Cincinnati Enquirer via Imagn Content Services, LLC

It’s the number of Baskin-Robbins’ original flavors, it’s a popular number in the world of sports betting, it’s the number of letters in the Macedonian alphabet, and it’s a lucky number in China.

And then there is four. That is the number of times the Cincinnati Bengals have drafted at lucky number 31.

For the most part, it has been a pretty lucky number for the Bengals, as well, even though it’s been 30 years since they last drafted in that position, when they took Carl Pickens at No. 31 in the 1992 NFL Draft.

Four years before that, Cincinnati picked up Ickey Woods at No. 31. In 1980, it was Kansas linebacker Kirby Criswell and, OK, that one didn’t work out so well.

The very first time the Bengals had the 31st pick in an NFL draft, Cincinnati picked up one of the better middle linebackers ever to wear the stripes in Bill Bergey of Arkansas State.

Carl Pickens

Prior to the arrival of Ja’Marr Chase, the Bengals had exactly two players named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. The first was Downtown Eddie Brown in 1985. The second was Carl Pickens.

Pickens went on to a stellar career in Cincinnati. During his eight-year career with the Bengals, he was named Second Team All Pro on two occasions and made the Pro Bowl twice.

In 1995, Pickens set a Bengals record for receptions in a single season with 99, and touchdown catches with 17. From 1994-1995, Pickens became the first NFL player to record at least five receptions and a receiving touchdown in eight straight games.

Pickens finished his Cincinnati career with 530 receptions for 6,887 yards (No. 4 on the Bengals’ list) and set a franchise record with 63 touchdowns, a mark that stood until A.J. Green surpassed it in 2020.

Ickey Woods

There is not much left to say about Cincinnati legend Elbert “Ickey” Woods, creator of the Ickey shuffle. There is no telling what kind of records Woods might hold had injuries not derailed his career early.

A breakout star as a rookie in 1988, Woods set franchise rookie records for rushing with 1,066 yards (since broken by Corey Dillon), 15 touchdowns, and an NFL-best 5.3 yards per carry. He added 228 yards and three touchdowns in the playoffs as the Bengals advanced to Super Bowl XXIII. Cincinnati lost the game 20-16 to the San Francisco 49ers, but Woods finished as the game’s leading rusher with 79 yards.

He tore his left ACL in the second game of the 1989 season, and was out of football by the end of the 1991 season.

Kirby Criswell

Kirby Criswell was drafted by the Bengals in the second round of the 1980 NFL Draft, and was waived before the start of the season. He was picked up by the Packers, who cut him two days later.

Late in the season, Criswell was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals and managed to get into four games. He missed most of the 1981 season with a broken arm but re-signed with St. Louis in 1982.

Less than a month after signing his contract, though, Criswell was arrested on federal drug charges and found guilty of possessing marijuana and conspiring to manufacture and distribute methamphetamine. He was sentenced to five years in prison. He never played in the NFL again.

Bill Bergey

In 2012, Bill Bergey was inducted into the Professional Football Researchers Association’s (PFRA) Hall of Very Good. The Hall of Very Good is the PFRA’s way of honoring players who have had excellent careers, but are not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Bergey was drafted by the Bengals in second round of the 1969 and made the Pro Bowl as a rookie. He started every game for Cincinnati during his five-year career with the Bengals before signing a contract with the Florida Blazers of the World Football League.

“It was strictly the money,” Bergey explained in an interview with the National Football Post. “I will make no bones about it. I was making $37,000 with Paul Brown. The World Football League came along and offered me, I think it was, $625,000 for three years guaranteed, no cut, no trade. I think you can do the math on that. I was strictly in it for the cash.”

It did not sit well with Brown.

“Paul Brown took me to court, stating that ‘It impairs the integrity of any professional athlete to play for one ball club and to be compensated by another,’” recalled Bergey. “I had already received an $80,000 bonus from the World Football League and that was more than twice my salary. I had one more year under Paul Brown. I had said that ‘I would honor that one year and then I was going on to the World Football League.’ We had the biggest, most unbelievable court battle you can imagine in Philadelphia. I never cried ‘Uncle.’ I knew that I was doing the right thing. I won the court battle. I won the appeal, and I pretty much pissed Paul Brown off and he was not going to have anything to do with me.”

Bergey went on to a stellar career in Philadelphia where he was named First Team All-Pro on two occasions and named to the second team three times. He was selected to four more Pro Bowls with the Eagles and played in Super Bowl XV in 1980, the final game of his career.