Sproles can still talk to other clubs, but any team wanting him would now have to eclipse the Chargers' $6.62 million offer and deliver two first-round picks to secure Sproles.
That won't happen, so by all accounts it appears Sproles is back as a returner and part-time running back.
"We thought a lot about it and we felt a little bit uncomfortable with the unknown, which would be Darren entering the open market," Smith told reporters. "At that point, we would have been one of 32 teams. We've decided to put a franchise tag on him and have him as a part of our team for this year."
There's a chance to parties could get together on a long-term deal. But for the short term, pencil the 5-foot-6, 181-pound Sproles as a Charger.
Now what about LaDainian Tomlinson?
Smith claims Sproles' deal doesn't figure into his talk with Tomlinson.
"Has L.T. been eliminated from the process because of the franchise tag? Absolutely not," Smith said. "This designation has nothing to do with LaDainian Tomlinson. We're hoping to get a new deal done with him. One thing is not related to the other."
Smith is hopeful of speaking with Tomlinson's agent, Tom Condon, at the NFL Scouting Combine. Tomlinson, the AFC's fourth-leading rusher last season, has said he would consider a reworked deal to stay with the team.
His current cap number is north of $8 million and the Chargers have deemed that too high. On the horizon are potential deals to be worked out with quarterback Philip Rivers, outside linebacker Shawne Merriman, left tackle Marcus McNeill and tight end Antonio Gates.
All four have Pro Bowls on their resume and won't come cheap.
Sproles saw his value skyrocket after last season, in which he collected 2,297 all-purpose yards and seven touchdowns.
C Nick Hardwick
--C Nick Hardwick and TE Kris Wilson are among the 95 players enrolled in the NFL Business Management and Entrepreneurial Program at the Harvard Business School, Kellogg School of Management (Northwestern University), Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
--Despite getting a rich contract, GM A.J. Smith doesn't see RB/KR Darren Sproles' role changing much. "We look at him the same," he said of the return specialist and part-time running back. "If there's a tweaking to his role that's a topic for the head coach, but I believe his role will be very similar to what it has been in the past."
--Coach Norv Turner doesn't hesitate stating what stands out from the 2008 season. "The biggest thing is the way we finished," he said. "There were a lot of different things that happened to our football team that would have made it easy for guys to say, 'We're not going to go anywhere. This thing isn't going to happen this year.' I think they did a good job of hanging in there. The way we finished speaks volumes for the type of guys we have."
--Before Darren Sproles, the last Chargers to earn the franchise tag was QB Drew Brees in 2005.
--WR Vincent Jackson entered a not guilty plea for his two misdemeanor charges of drunken driving. He was arrested on Jan. 6.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We'd like him here long term. That's our intention. I have no idea what Darren and his agent are thinking." -GM A.J. Smith, when asked if the team will explore a multiyear contract with Darren Sproles.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
FRANCHISE PLAYER: RB Darren Sproles: Tendered at $6.621M.
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--OL Kynan Forney supplies depth and could return on the cheap.
--RG Mike Goff has been reliable and a hard-nosed player. But the team isn't inclined to shower the veteran with a big contract - there have been no contract conversations to date.
--OLB Marques Harris is used on passing downs and has shown some promise. He could come back as insurance against Shawne Merriman returning with a rebuilt knee.
--C Jeremy Newberry could give the Chargers a San Diego discount and return. He was a valuable backup with Nick Hardwick was injured early last season and prefers to stay in California if continuing his career.
--DE Igor Olshansky griped about his playing time after the season and doesn't seem long for the team. It looks as if his status as a second-round pick isn't enough to save his roster spot.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--WR Malcom Floyd is a great red-zone target and broke our last year before getting hurt down the stretch. Chargers would like to bring him back and he wants to return.
--CB Cletis Gordon supplies depth, but his shortcomings were exposed when he played for extended stretches. Chargers could let him go and try someone else.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS
--RT Jeromey Clary will likely stick in that he won't be that expensive and he has logged time as a starter. That said, the team could be looking for improvement at this spot and acquire someone to push Clary for the starting job.
PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: None.
PLAYERS ACQUIRED: None.
PLAYERS LOST: None.