The National Football League (NFL) combine is one of the few opportunities that professional scouts have to annually evaluate draftable talent in a controlled environment. Former East Carolina University running back Keaton Mitchell and wide receiver C.J. Johnson both received invitations to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana, for the combine, but one Pirate was overlooked from the list of over 300 invitees – wide receiver Isaiah Winstead.
Winstead spent one season with the Pirates after transferring from the University of Toledo in 2021. After beginning his collegiate career at Norfolk State University, Winstead transferred to Toledo, forgoing a season of eligibility in 2019. Once settled in at Toledo as a Rocket, Winstead’s third season of eligibility was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Still, he finished the season as the team’s leader in yards with 429 yards in six games.
In 2021, Winstead created 38 receptions for 520 yards and a touchdown in his first full season at the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) level. After graduating, he entered the transfer portal once again and found a home in Greenville, North Carolina, when he committed to ECU to become a Pirate for his final season of college football.
“The coaches there just made me feel like I was home,” Winstead said in an interview with The East Carolinian in April 2022. “From the recruiting coordinators to the head coach. They want me to be the number one receiver and offered much more opportunities.”
The team delivered on that promise of opportunity, as he became the first ECU receiver to have a 1,000 yard season since wide receiver Trevon Brown in 2018 and finished as the team’s leading receiver. Winstead finished the 2022 season with the Pirates with 1,085 yards on 88 receptions and six touchdowns.
For the 6 '4, 213 lb. wideout, the most dynamic part of Winstead’s game is not what the numbers are, but when they come. He has proven himself as a physical threat for contested catches who is willing to gain necessary yardage in third down situations. In other words, he keeps drives alive.
Against Navy, Winstead created three crucial third down catches, one of which he took 67 yards to the Midshipmen’s endzone for the touchdown. Though the Pirates came up short in that game, it was in no part due to Winstead who, in that game alone, hauled in 11 receptions for 143 yards and the score.
Winstead came into the program as an immediate difference maker that helped lead ECU to their first bowl game victory in nearly a decade.
It was during the 2023 Birmingham Bowl that Winstead made his biggest splash scoring, catching six receptions for 72 yards and two touchdowns. The pair of receiving scores was the most by any player in that bowl game. The Birmingham Bowl is also where Johnson eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark, a feat that Winstead accomplished in the regular season.
"It's cool." Winstead said in an interview with The East Carolinian. "It would have been great to get an invite. That's like a childhood dream come true, but I'm not too much worried about it. I trust God and trust my training, the work I put in."
Winstead had been overlooked for much of his career, missing any All Conference selection or post-season awards. From starting his collegiate career at an inferior FCS school that was struggling to compete, to becoming the standout receiver at a subpar FBS level school, to finishing his career as the leading receiver on the Pirates, Winstead has been the difference maker at every stage of his career.
Though he may not have received an invite to the combine, teams should be on the look out for this physical threat who steps up in crucial situations. From his ability to create separation to his body control, his body of work speaks for itself. While he needs to work on his consistency and effort, if he puts in the work, Winstead can be a game changer for any team running the spread offense at the next level.
"I feel whatever happens, happens for a reason." Winstead said. "My expectation is to get drafted. I feel like I'm a pick for sure, but we'll see."
The NFL draft will take place from April 27 through April 29 with seven rounds of selection in Kansas City, Missouri. Six former Pirates have declared for draft eligibility.
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