GM A.J. Smith (Lenny Ignelzi/AP)
Chargers general manager A.J. Smith seldom uses it, and he's unlikely to apply the franchise tag this offseason. He slapped it on running back/returner Darren Sproles last year and he utilized it with ex-quarterback Drew Brees in 2005. Other than that, the franchise tag usually stays in Smith's back pocket.
Early indications are the Chargers will decline giving the tag to Sproles again, as it would result in a salary which would surpass $7 million.
Sproles is an exciting, electric player, but that is a steep price to pay for a running back that doesn't carry the ball on every down and had decent -- not great -- success as a returner.
The $6.6 million the Chargers gave him last season yielded a return in production of 840 yards and seven touchdowns on offense; he was solid on special teams with one return touchdown.
But with the NFL heading into an uncapped year, Sproles could revert to a free agent of the restricted kind.
If the Chargers do break out the franchise tag, it won't come until closer to March 5, the date free agency begins.
While Sproles seems an unlikely candidate to be tagged, might the Chargers use it for wide receiver Vincent Jackson?
Jackson is coming off his second straight 1,000-yard season and has emerged as one of the NFL's rising stars. But he's also had trouble keeping his nose clean -- he was briefly handcuffed and detained on the morning of the team's playoff loss to the Jets for driving with a suspended license.
There is also a pending suspension as he awaits the outcome of his second DUI arrest.
But No. 1 receivers are difficult to find and with the Chargers leaning so heavily on the pass, Jackson could be too good to let slip away.
--Will Cro follow L.T. out of town?
With future Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson all but gone from San Diego, there is increased chatter that another ex-Pro Bowler will be hitting the highway as well.
Cornerback Antonio Cromartie has worn out his welcome with the Chargers. Cromartie was once considered a rising star as he oozed with athleticism and led the NFL with franchise-record 10 interceptions two years ago.
But he's been a pain off the field to some extent and his play on it has been questioned because of inconsistency.
Cromartie never was a big hitter. Instead he relied on his blazing speed and quickness to cause headaches for opposing quarterbacks.
But his lack of physical play has never come into focus more than the stunt he pulled in the team's playoff loss to the Jets.
With Shonn Greene getting set to ice the game with a 53-yard touchdown run, Cromartie had first crack at him near the line of scrimmage.
Cromartie didn't get close enough to whiff on the tackle. Instead he never made a push toward Green, who subsequently steam rolled safety Eric Weddle for the touchdown.
So the Chargers are bent on removing Cromartie from their roster, something that might be viewed, at least internally, as an addition by subtraction.
The rumor mill has Cromartie being peddled, possibly for a running back. One possibility is a swap of headaches. The deal would send Cromartie to Buffalo for running back Marshawn Lynch.
There could be something to the possibility. Bills' general manager Buddy Nix was the personnel man who raved about Cromartie and pushed for the Chargers to draft him when he was in San Diego.
Nix was on board with the Chargers taking a chance on Cromartie and drafting him in the first round, despite the fact he was coming off a major knee injury and started but a handful of games at Florida State.
It might be time to move Cromartie, who maybe doesn't always his mind 100 percent on football.
--After six years of sitting down with the media at the season's conclusion, general manager A.J. Smith is sitting this year out. Instead of letting all the media chat with him at once, Smith said, "I've decided to be available at the media's convenience."
Smith, though, doesn't speak with the entire media corps covering the Chargers, especially those who have been critical of his moves in the past.
--While the team's premature ejection from the playoffs has been tough to swallow, coach Norv Turner remains confident the right pieces are in place.
"We have great character players that will get this thing done," Turner said. "There's no question in my mind about that."
--Esther Gillman, the widow of legendary Chargers coach Sid Gillman, passed away earlier this month. She was 97; was married to Sid for 67 years before he died in 2003.
--No one breaks down special teams play like Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News. The longtime NFL writer ranked the Chargers' special teams the seventh-best in the NFL. Among other things, the Chargers' special teams had three touchdowns last season.
--DE Travis Johnson's 4-year-old daughter was hospitalized recently because of a stroke. While coming to the Chargers just last year, he said he's been overwhelmed by their support during this difficult time.
"I'm still so new to this Charger family but the love that has come out of the Charger family for this child, for me and my family has been wonderful," he said.
--DL Jacques Cesaire continues to raise money for Haiti earthquake victims. His parents came from Haiti to the United States in 1976.
--OLB Shawne Merriman and TV personality Tila Tequila have settled their dueling lawsuits.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "There is a lot to do. There's no question about that, but we'll address each spot and make the best decision for us." -- Chargers GM A.J. Smith on the team entering the free-agency period with 22 free agents.
The biggest news, early on, will be the Chargers parting ways with running back LaDainian Tomlinson.
It's clear the future Hall of Famer isn't going to return at any price, as his pride was wounded during a season in which he was an afterthought in the offense.
The team also has to decide how to attack Darren Sproles, another running back. He was given $6 million last year, and that seems to be a little rich for a guy who can't rush every down -- but is a heck of a returner and receiver out of the backfield.
It was believed the Chargers wouldn't bring back outside linebacker Shawne Merriman, but in an uncapped year, his return is more plausible.
The team also needs to structure a long-term deal for left tackle Marcus McNeill, a key part of an offense which leans so heavily on the pass.
1. Running back: With LaDainian Tomlinson not expected to return and Darren Sproles not being an every-down back, the Chargers need to shore up this position.
2. Defensive tackle: Jamal Williams missed all but one game last year injured; the Chargers have to face the fact he is returning for his 13th season this year. A replacement here is needed.
3. Cornerback: If the Chargers go a different direction in regard to starter Antonio Cromartie, a replacement needs to be found. He may not be on the roster, and that includes former first-round pick Antoine Cason.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--DT Alfonso Boone filled a need last year but the team looks to get younger here.
--TE Brandon Manumaleuna is a solid blocker and should return -- he likes the offense.
--C Dennis Norman is at a spot where the team has depth and likely won't come back.
--WR Kassim Osgood is a three-time Pro Bowler as a special-teamer; he wants to try his luck at receiver and could flee.
--OL Jon Runyan is going to retire and run for Congress.
--DT Ian Scott doesn't have the upside the Chargers are looking for and will likely depart.
--TE Kris Wilson is a solid special-teams player, but if someone offers him more of a chance to contribute in a base offense, he's gone.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (*indicates restricted because of uncapped year)
--RT Jeromey Clary will return but will be pushed by Brandyn Dombrowski for a starting job.
--*ILB Tim Dobbins is a solid backup after getting lapped by Brandon Siler; should return.
--*WR Malcom Floyd could likely get more passes thrown his way elsewhere, but he likes San Diego and will likely take a little less to remain here.
--*DT Antonio Garay was a late-season addition and doesn't figure in the team's plans moving forward.
--*C Eric Ghiaciuc won't have a place with the number of linemen -- when healthy -- ahead of him.
--*OLB Marques Harris is a decent pass rusher but the Chargers will likely see him go where he would get more of a chance to contribute.
--*WR Vincent Jackson is the team's top receiver and will be brought back -- unless the team has grown tired of his immaturity; that's doubtful after two 1,000-yard seasons.
--*DL Travis Johnson will probably have to settle for less money, but the former first-round pick of the Texans might have found a home in San Diego.
--*LT Marcus McNeill is a stud at left tackle and among the team's biggest offseason priorities.
--*OLB Shawne Merriman will return, possibly, if willing to swallow his pride and lower his price tag. A motivated Merriman playing on a one-year deal could be attractive to the Chargers.
--*RB Darren Sproles isn't likely to be named the franchise player again this year and could flee if offered a long-term deal.
--*LB Dontarrious Thomas seldom saw the field when arriving late last year and appears to be a goner.
--*QB Charlie Whitehurst is learning a ton at the No. 3 spot, so he finally absorbs one more year of education and then moves on.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS
--OLB Antwan Applewhite can deliver a burst off the ball and is keen on special teams. He should be brought back.
--FB Mike Tolbert continues to improve and the Chargers could give him more carries in the base offense, depending on the situation at running back.