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‘Serious Contender’: How A Draft Expert Projects James Pearce Jr. Ahead of 2025 Draft

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

It’s been 26 years since Tennessee boasted the top pick at the NFL Draft, but that streak could end as soon as 2025.

Tennessee junior EDGE rusher James Pearce Jr. has been widely projected as one of the top NFL prospects at the collegiate level this fall after a breakout sophomore season in 2023. The Vols’ star EDGE rusher mauled through opposing defenses and continued to attract more attention as the regular season went on.

By the end of the season, Pearce became a player that had to be specifically gameplanned against. When he wasn’t, it played out to the tune of 1.5 sacks, 1.5 tackles for loss, one forced fumble, and one 52-yard interception returned for a touchdown against Iowa in the Citrus Bowl. Pearce played his best game of the season to close out the year and has been highly-touted at the NFL level ever since.

Immediately following the 2024 NFL Draft this past spring, organizations and experts began throwing out names for the way-too-early potential top overall pick in 2025. One of the most common names was Pearce.

But while Pearce might end up being the best NFL prospect this year, it’s a quarterbacks game in the league. Teams who don’t have a quarterback could work hard to secure one in the first few picks with Pearce being the top non-QB taken off the board next season.

According to ESPN Draft expert Jordan Reid, Pearce is one of five players with “serious” contenders for the No. 1 pick next season. Pearce is one of two non-QBs out of the five with both being EDGE rushers.

Reid tied Pearce with the second-highest chance of being taken No. 1 overall at 15 percent alongside Georgia EDGE rusher Mykel Williams and behind Georgia QB Carson Beck.

“His burst and first-step quickness are hardly ever matched, but his true playing weight and overall consistency against the run at the point of attack are two factors that evaluators will be watching closely next season,” Reid wrote for ESPN.

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Two more quarterbacks round out the five serious contenders with Texas QB Quinn Ewers and Colorado QB Shedeur Sanders both taking 12 percent.

It’s important to note here that the percentages aren’t the likely order of the draft, just each player’s individual chances at going No. 1 overall. Reid’s projection shows that the No. 1 pick is most likely going to a quarterback but could easily wind up with Pearce if that team is not in the market for a quarterback and no one is looking to trade to No. 1 for one.

There’s not a bona fied No. 1 overall quarterback projected for the draft at this time like there has been years in the past such as 2024’s Caleb Williams, 2023’s Bryce Young, 2021’s Trevor Lawrence, or 2020’s Joe Burrow. This year’s top quarterback contenders are Beck, Sanders, Ewers, Notre Dame’s Riley Leonard, and Texas A&M’s Connor Weigman.

Instead, the 2025 draft might play out more like the 2022 draft where Georgia DE Travon Walker and Michigan DE Aidan Hutchinson were the top two picks. Where it differs, though, is that the first quarterback in 2022 wasn’t taken until No. 21 overall with Kenny Pickett to the Steelers. It seems extremely likely that at least two quarterbacks will go in the top 5 picks.

If this does turn into a draft where none of the quarterbacks fully separate themselves as the top overall pick for an NFL organization, Pearce could work his name into that conversation as a game-changing defensive end with power, athleticism, speed, and length.

During the 2023 season, Tennessee’s 6-foot-5 EDGE rusher recorded 28 solo tackles, 10 sacks, two forced fumbles, and 14.5 tackles for loss in 13 games.

James Pearce Jr. will be one of the most important and one of the most-watched players on Tennessee’s roster this season as a potential No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick in 2025.

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