Tennessee football's James Pearce Jr ranked college football's top-returning edge rusher

James Pearce Jr wrecked opposing offensive lines in 2023 and was a big reason Tennessee football's defense improved from previous years.
Connecticut v Tennessee
Connecticut v Tennessee / Donald Page/GettyImages

Pro Football Focus's Max Chadwick ranked the top-10 returning edge rushers, and Tennessee football's James Pearce Jr is at the top of the list. He's only been on Rocky Top for two years but has immediately impacted Tennessee's defensive line.

The rising junior took a big step forward in 2023 and finished the season with 28 tackles, ten sacks, two forced fumbles, and a pick-six against Iowa in the Citrus Bowl. That's quite the stat line for a sophomore edge rusher. Pearce will likely have another big year in 2024 and make a big impact on the Vols' edge.

"Pearce became one of the most fearsome pass rushers in college football this past season," Chadwick writes. "The sophomore’s 21.3% pressure rate ranked third among all edge defenders in the country, as did his 92.4 pass-rush grade. Pearce ended the season as the fourth-most-valuable Power Five edge defender, according to PFF’s wins above average metric."

Chadwick even believes if Pearce were eligible for the 2024 NFL Draft, he would be the first edge rusher off the board. Regardless of whether he declares for the NFL Draft after his Junior or Senior season, he will be the first edge rusher off the board in that draft, too. Pearce might even be the No. 1 overall pick, according to Chadwick.

Pearce can be a game-changer for the Vols. He's entering his third year at Tennessee and will be a veteran leader on Tennessee's defense. He will be a finalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award and Bronko Nagurski Trophy for the best defensive player in the nation. He could also be a first-team All-American if he takes another step forward in his Junior season.

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In short, Tennessee has lightning in a bottle on the edge this year. Pearce is one of the best defensive linemen in the country, and he can help the Vols' defense take another step forward and compete for a spot in the expanded College Football Playoff.