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ESPN NFL Draft Analyst: James Pearce is a top-five overall returning player

High praise.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 18 Georgia at Tennessee Photo by Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Sometimes you just know — sometimes players just have that look to them. James Pearce has it, and it was very obvious early on. From the very second he took on a full time role to open the 2023 season against Virginia, you knew Tennessee had something special.

Pearce, a former five-star prospect according to On3, had two sacks to start the year against the Cavaliers. You immediately saw an elite first step, incredible speed off the edge and an ability to bend around the corner. Pair all of that with a 6-5, 242 pound frame? That sounds like a top ten pick to me.

ESPN’s Matt Miller has been told the same. Miller called Pearce a ‘top-five returning player’ while looking ahead to the 2025 NFL Draft. He said that a scout admitted to him that Pearce would be the first defensive player off the board if he were eligible for the 2024 NFL Draft.

A legitimate top-five returning player for the 2025 draft class, Pearce is a 6-5, 242-pound blur rushing off the edge. With 43 pressures and 9.5 sacks in 2023, Pearce established himself as one of the best pass-rushers in the SEC. In fact, an AFC West scout who covers the conference told me Pearce would be the first defensive player drafted in the 2024 class if he were draft-eligible. Expectations are high for Pearce, but his speed and savvy pass-rush moves are worthy of the hype.

Pearce finished the year with 9.5 sacks as a sophomore. He put the cherry on top of his breakout season in the Citrus Bowl, coming up with a sack, a forced fumble and even a 52-yard pick six. Now poised to return and lead the Tennessee defense as a junior, NFL scouts are already drooling.

Perhaps most impressive was his 43 pressures that he was credited for. Pearce single-handedly wrecked a couple of games this year, but the South Carolina tape really stands out. He had Spencer Rattler on the run all night long, keeping the Gamecocks’ passing attack under wraps with constant pressure coming from a variety of different spots.

Tennessee’s last top ten pick was Darnell Wright (10th, Bears) back in 2023. Tennessee’s last top five overall pick? That would go all the way back to Eric Berry (5th, Chiefs) back in 2010. If Pearce can match his production from 2023 and avoid any major injuries, he’s got a chance to break that streak in 2025.