‘Serious Contender’: How Draft Expert Predicts James Pearce Jr. Will Go Ahead of the 2025 Draft

Tennessee EDGE player James Pearce Jr. Photo courtesy of Tennessee Athletics.

It’s been 26 years since Tennessee had a No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft, but that streak could end as early as 2025.

Tennessee junior James Pearce Jr. is widely considered one of the top college NFL prospects this fall after a breakout sophomore season in 2023. The Vols’ star EDGE player has been shredding opposing defenses and drawing increasing attention as the regular season progresses.

By the end of the season, Pearce had become a player you had to game plan against. When you weren’t, the game was played to a rhythm 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 had his best game of the season to end the year and has been highly rated at the NFL level ever since.

Immediately following the 2024 NFL Draft this spring, organizations and pundits began throwing out names for a potential top pick in the 2025 draft that was too early, and one of the most popular names was Pearce.

But while Pearce may emerge as the NFL’s top prospect this year, the league is all about quarterbacks. Teams without a quarterback can work hard to secure one in their first few picks, and Pearce will be the best non-QB taken off the board next season.

According to ESPN Draft expert Jordan Reid, Pearce is one of five players with “serious” candidates to be the No. 1 pick next season. Pearce is one of two non-QB players among those five, both of whom are EDGE rushers.

Reid tied with Pearce for the second-best chance of being selected No. 1 overall at 15 percent, behind Georgia EDGE quarterback Mykel Williams and Georgia EDGE quarterback Carson Beck.

“His explosiveness and first-step quickness rarely match his true power, but his true play and overall consistency in the running game at the point of attack are two factors evaluators will be watching closely next season,” Reid wrote to ESPN.

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Two more quarterbacks round out the top five serious candidates: Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers and Colorado quarterback Shedeur Sanders will each earn 12 percent.

It’s important to note that the percentages don’t reflect the likely order of the draft, but rather each player’s individual chances of becoming the No. 1 overall pick. Reid’s projection shows that the No. 1 pick will most likely go to a point guard, but could easily go to Pearce if the team isn’t looking for a point guard and no one is willing to trade up to the No. 1 pick for one.

There is no true No. 1 quarterback in the draft at this point, as was the case in previous years, such as 2024 Caleb Williams, 2023 Bryce Young, 2021 Trevor Lawrence or 2020 Joe Burrow. This year’s top quarterback prospects include Beck, Sanders, Ewers, Notre Dame’s Riley Leonard and Texas A&M’s Connor Weigman.

Instead, the 2025 draft could look more like the 2022 draft, where Georgia DE Travon Walker and Michigan DE Aidan Hutchinson were the top two picks. The difference is that the first quarterback in 2022 was only selected with the No. 21 overall pick, and Kenny Pickett went to the Steelers. It seems extremely likely that at least two quarterbacks will end up in the top five.

If a draft does occur in which no quarterback is considered the top prospect in an NFL organization, Pearce could go down in history as a game-changing defensive end with strength, athleticism, speed and range.

In 2023, the 6-foot-5 Tennessee EDGE cornerback has 28 solo tackles, 10 sacks, two forced fumbles and 14.5 tackles for loss in 13 games.

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