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Tennessee EDGE Rusher James Pearce Jr. Garnering First Round Projections in Early Mock Drafts

James Pearce
Tennessee EDGE rusher James Pearce Jr. Photo via Tennessee Athletics.

Aside from being one of the most anticipated Tennessee players to take the field this fall, Vols’ junior EDGE rusher James Pearce Jr. is already stirring up the waters on the road to the 2025 NFL Draft.

The Vols’ breakout defensive lineman turned heads throughout a breakout season in 2023, capped off with a terrific performance in Tennessee’s shutout win over Iowa in the Citrus Bowl.

Tennessee added three players to their list of all-time U.T. draft picks during the 2024 NFL Draft last month in Detroit, but are projected to add a first-round pick to their class in 2025. Perhaps even the Vols’ first No. 1 overall pick since Peyton Manning.

Of the four publications being looked at with a 2025 mock draft, two have Pearce projected as the top overall pick next April. Pro Football Focus and 247 Sports both have the Carolina Panthers projected with the first pick. ESPN and NBC Sports, meanwhile, both have New York with the first pick after a trade with Carolina. Keep that in mind.

Pro Football Focus’ Max Chadwick and Dalton Wasserman have the Panthers selecting Pearce with the No. 1 overall pick, pointing to the departure of Brian Burns as the optimal reason to take the Tennessee Vol with freakish athleticism.

“After trading away Brian Burns, the Panthers find their next athletic edge rusher in Pearce,” Chadwick and Wasserman wrote for PFF. “The sophomore’s 21.3% pressure rate ranked third among college football edge defenders, as did his 92.4 pass-rush grade. The scariest part is that he won almost exclusively off athleticism against SEC tackles. If Pearce develops more pass-rushing moves, watch out.”

Pearce ended the 2023 season with 18 solo tackles, 27 total tackles, 9.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and one pick-six for 52 yards in the Citrus Bowl.

247 Sports’ Blake Brockermeyer is also in agreement regarding Pearce at No. 1 overall to the Panthers.

“If the Panthers indeed are picking first here, then they probably have a quarterback issue, but nobody in 2025 profiles as good enough to go first overall,” Brockermeyer writes for 247. “This would either be a trade-back or a spot for college football’s best edge-rusher, James Pearce Jr. of Tennessee. Pearce is actually from Charlotte, so this is a fun one for the Panthers and perhaps he can be their next Julius Peppers. Pearce led the SEC in sacks with 10 for his second season at Tennessee, adding 53 pressures. There are makings of a dominant pass-rusher here.”

Without even seeing the next two projections, it’s easy to tell that scouts and expects are salivating over Pearce’s game and his potential at the next level. Pearce stands tall at 6-foot-5 and weighs in at 242 pounds.

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ESPN’s Jordan Reid is factoring in a trade to his projections with the Panthers moving down to No. 4 and the Giants moving up to No. 1 overall. Still, though, the Panthers get the EDGE rusher from Tennessee. Reid’s projection has Pearce dropping to No. 4 – still to Carolina – as the second EDGE rusher taken behind Georgia’s Mykel Williams at No. 2 overall. Reid also brought up Burns’ departure as a reason for the pick.

“Pearce has a rare combination of bend and closing speed,” Reid wrote for ESPN. “He’s a scheme-versatile defender who had a 20.2% pressure rate (third in the FBS), 10 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss last season, and he was especially great on third down (25.5% pressure). The Panthers need an explosive edge rusher after trading Brian Burns to the Giants this offseason.”

And, lastly, NBC Sports’ Eric Froton still has Pearce as a Top 5 pick but is the only of the four to not have Carolina as the landing spot. Froton has a similar New York/Carolina trade between 1 and 5 but doesn’t have Pearce lasting until the Panthers’ selection.

Froton has James Pearce being drafted by the Tennessee Titans with the fourth overall selection in the 2025 NFL Draft.

“A terror off the edge who charted 8.5 sacks with a team-leading 4.7% havoc rate and 14.5 tackles for loss (TFL), Pearce recorded the second-highest PFF pass rush grade in the Power 5 (P5) at 92.4 behind only UCLA EDGE Laiatu Latu, who was the first defender selected in the 2024 NFL Draft,” Froton wrote for NBC Sports. “Pearce Jr. is a crafty, versatile edge defender with all the physical tools to succeed and the pedigree to revitalize the Titans’ pass rush.”

With a strong junior season in 2024, Pearce will be talked about as one of the top draft prospects among all competitors. But even here in the spring, months away from the start of the college football season, the Tennessee Vol already has scouts and experts in a frenzy.

The James Pearce Jr. hype has only just begun.

Stay tuned to Rocky Top Insider for more Tennessee football news, notes, and coverage throughout the offseason.

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