Colts general manager Chris Ballard sent a text to Charles Tillman during Darius Leonard's rookie season.
"We have the linebacker version of you playing," Ballard wrote.
This wasn't some flippant remark made to, arguably, the GOAT of forced fumbles — the guy who has a move, the Peanut Punch, named after him. Ballard evaluated Tillman as an area scout for the Chicago Bears in the early 2000s and "literally jumped on the table for him," former Bears director of college scouting Greg Gabriel once said in a radio interview.
Ballard was right in his conviction about "Peanut" Tillman, who forced 44 fumbles over his 13 years in the NFL.
Four seasons later, Leonard is proving Ballard right in that comparison he fired off to Tillman in 2018.
Leonard forced the 11th fumble of his career in Week 6 when he curled his right hand into a fist and punched the ball out from the unsuspecting arms of Houston Texans running back David Johnson. No linebacker since 1999 has forced more fumbles than Leonard in the first 48 games of a career.
"He's the best in the league at doing it," safety Julian Blackmon said.
All those forced fumbles do not happen by accident. It takes strength and speed. It takes instincts. It takes a certain innate ability.
And it takes uncommonly detailed preparation days before he loads up his arm, balls his hand into a fist and fires a haymaker at the ball.
"I need to know every ball carrier — how they're carrying it, when they're carrying it, what hand dominant are they and their fumble history," Leonard said.
Armed with all that knowledge and 34-inch arms, Leonard knows when and how to strike.
In Week 1 against the Seattle Seahawks, Leonard knew he could rifle a punch at running back Chris Carson if he had the ball in his right arm and Leonard was able to line up his own right arm for a swing.
Late in the third quarter, Leonard found himself one-on-one against Carson. But while the ball was in Carson's right hand, Leonard was closer to the back's left arm. So he relented.
"I knew if I punched, he could've crossed back," Leonard said. "So I just took the tackle from there."
But that play came about three minutes after Leonard found the right moment for a Peanut Punch.
Carson took a handoff to his left and, as he cut outside in the hole, tucked the ball into his right arm — as he usually does. Leonard was there and this time, his right arm was lined up with Carson's right arm.
A split-second later, the ball was on the ground. Leonard did it again.
"He had it in his right hand — and if I can have my right hand open and the ball is in his right hand, that's when I'm going to go for the punch because I'm more powerful in my right hand," Leonard said. "And just at that moment, I saw it, watching tape he carries the ball in his right hand 85 percent of the time and it was just a perfect opportunity to go for the punch."
While Leonard's long arms allow him to have more reach on his punches, they also allow him to confidently go for the ball without worrying about missing a tackle. That confidence began years ago when Jonathan Saxon, one of Leonard's coaches at South Carolina State, told him: "Hey, your arms are too long enough for you to just tackle," while stressing he could punch and still tackle.
"He wraps up on the tackle — he doesn't really sell himself out on the punch out," linebacker Bobby Okereke said.
Leonard hunts for plays on which a ball-carrier doesn't have four points of pressure on the football — "I'm trying to find the air pocket," he said.
If he's outside in space, like on a screen pass, he'll try to go over the ball-carrier's body — "because if they don't see me coming, they never know to tuck the ball," he said.
But there's another rule Leonard has when it comes to getting the ball out.
"You can't be scared to get ran over," Leonard said. "It's like, okay, cool, you get ran over but make sure I still get him down. Sometimes you gotta give the game. I give another two yards but I'm going to get the ball about 40 percent of the time."
So when faced with Derrick Henry barreling upfield in Week 3, Leonard followed that rule. He went for the ball; Henry ran him over (and was tackled shortly after).
To the untrained eye, it looked like an embarrassing moment, the kind of thing that would (and did) wind up being replayed over and over again on social media.
But those who knew what Leonard was trying to accomplish loved it. Not for the result, of course. For the process.
"That play against Derrick Henry a couple weeks back, everyone was saying how he got ran over and things like that. But if you watch the play, he's going for the ball," defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. "It was a 50/50 business decision that he wanted to make — it was, do I want to punch the ball out for the team and make a big play or the other side of it is get embarrassed and run over. He took that decision to do everything he can to make a play for the team. Unfortunately that play didn't go his way but you just see the mentality he has is going after the ball."
That mentality permeates the entire Colts defense, which has the third-most takeaways in the NFL (86) since Leonard debuted in 2018. Teammates joke that the ball finds Leonard, but it's not a coincidence every time he picks off a pass or forces a fumble.
"It's just because that Maniac mentality that he has," Buckner said. "He's always running. Wherever the ball is, he is."
And when teammates see the results of Leonard running all over the field, punching balls out and picking off passes, it motivates them to try to match that ballhawking intensity.
"Especially when Darius got his, it was like, I gotta wake up, it's time to get mine too," Okereke said. "But great momentum shift for the whole team. That's what we expect out of a leader like him."
There's a fringe benefit for the Colts to Leonard's meticulous-yet-intense get-the-ball-at-all-costs approach, too. Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus has seen Leonard work on his punch-the-ball-out craft every day in practice for the last three years, tirelessly pushing to turn all that preparation and innate ability into muscle memory on gameday.
That, then, "makes practice tough," running back Jonathan Taylor said with a bit of a grin.
"But then it makes the game a little bit easier," he continued. "… You got somebody coming after the ball like that every single practice, every single day, then you get to the game and trust me there's not anyone like 5-3. So it definitely does make the game a little easier."
So 48 games into Leonard's career, he's not only carrying the torch for the Peanut Punch, but he's building his own legacy. It doesn't happen by accident every time his fist connects with a football and sends it hurtling toward the turf. Those forced fumbles come from an innate ability, an attitude, a focus, a dedication to his craft — all the things that make Leonard, a two-time first-team All-Pro, great.
"I've never seen anything like it before," defensive end Kwity Paye said.
Ballard, though, has.
"You could put Charles Tillman strip-tape on," he said, "and it's the same type of stuff."