Two stars from the South Carolina State Bulldogs could be in line to become the next generation of great defensive players in the NFL.

Javon Hargrave has become a force in the middle of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive line since entering the NFL in 2016. The defensive tackle was a standout player at the Bulldogs in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, producing enough impressive performances to earn the attention of Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert to be selected in the third round of the 2016 Draft.

Darius Leonard made a huge impression in his first season in the NFL for the Indianapolis Colts after being taken in the second round of the 2018 Draft. The 24-year-old was named defensive rookie of the year after starring in the middle of the Colts’ defense, notching 163 tackles and seven sacks in his 15 matches. He was also named a First-Team All-Pro for his exploits, quickly establishing a reputation as one of the best linebackers in the game.

Both players are entering similar situations in the 2019 season, where more will be expected of them due to quarterback problems for their respective teams. Andrew Luck stunned the Colts by retiring on the eve of the new campaign, while the Steelers have been rocked by a season-ending injury to Ben Roethlisberger.

As a result, the former titans of the AFC Conference are in a battle to remain in the playoff picture, although Indianapolis and Leonard have made a stronger start than the Steelers, who have lost their opening three games. The Colts are worth monitoring as an outsider in the odds for the AFC Championship, but they will face a tough road ahead of them, needing the best out of Leonard and his teammates on defense.

Leonard has been the heartbeat of Indianapolis’ defensive effort under head coach Frank Reich and defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus. His displays will be more important than ever in easing the pressure on Jacoby Brissett as he attempts to replace Luck. Leonard matched the production of the great linebackers of the game, including Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner, in his rookie season. Operating at that standard is extremely hard to match year-after-year, while the 24-year-old has already suffered a worrying concussion this term.

Injuries can halt even the brightest of prospects, but Leonard should be in line for another season of playing at least 12 games. He is the type of player that teams have to build their defenses around as the Carolina Panthers and the Seattle Seahawks have done with Kuechly and Wagner. It would not be a surprise to see Leonard receive a huge contract in the region of $16m per season in the coming years, ensuring that he remains the focal point of the defense in Indianapolis.

Hargrave is in a different situation. He has proven his talent in the middle of the line with three impressive seasons. At the age of 26, the defensive tackle will be eyeing a payday to earn the big contract of his career as his tenure with the Steelers is scheduled to stop at the end of the 2019 campaign. Pittsburgh are a team that likes to keep their homegrown players in the fold and his performances have continued to improve since he has featured on the line. Casey Hampton was a stalwart of Pittsburgh’s defense in the same position. Colbert and Tomlin could have a similar idea for Hargrave, although he will not come cheap and could earn in the range $8m per year.

Two players that emerged from humble backgrounds could be on the way to superstardom and the riches that it provides in the NFL.

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