"We are always players in the free agency market," Chargers general manager A. J Smith said. "We're just not big players for the big-money guys."
There was a time not that long ago the Chargers would chase and acquire the likes of defensive end Marcellus Wiley and wide receiver David Boston. But since Smith has come aboard -- he is entering his seventh season as the general manager -- the emphasis has been building through the draft.
Although after the first wave of free agents sign, Smith has been known to enter the market on his terms. His acquisitions usually don't result in bold headlines; he's looking more for solid football players than making news for a grand signing.
"We let the dust settle a little bit," said Smith, whose only key free-agent pickup last year was inside linebacker Kevin Burnett. "We always look for players that we think can help us. We're going to be active. I don't know how quickly someone will come in here, but we're going to be looking for some help depending on what is available."
It's not as if the Chargers don't have needs, despite coming off their fourth straight AFC West title. It's just that Smith doesn't want to blow up the roster's salary structure -- and possibly cause more problems in the locker room -- by acquiring a big-name player.
Still, it's unlikely the Chargers can fix their shortcomings at defensive tackle, running back, cornerback and right tackle just through the draft.
But a peak at Smith's handiwork through free agency reveals a man trying to get the most bang for his bucks instead of someone looking to be part of the lead story on "Sports Center."
Since 2003, Smith has signed linebacker Randall Godfrey, guard Mike Goff, fullback Lorenzo Neal, tight end Kris Wilson and last year's plum, Burnett. That lack of interest in free agents often gets Chargers fans grumbling. But Smith listens to his brain and not the boosters' emotions.
"People say a lot of things, but we make decisions in the best interest of our football team," Smith said. "We're going to try and get the best football players we can; the best on and off the field."
The Chargers' best chance to fill their void at running back appears to be through the draft. It's clear that the early free-agent running backs haven't done much to raise the Chargers' interest.
"One thing is obvious, and even I won't dance around it: We're in the running back business," Smith said. "L.T. is gone. Michael Bennett is gone and (Darren) Sproles has been tendered, but nothing has been finalized. You could have three new running backs here, at least two. We'll have some new running backs in here. How we acquire them remains uncertain."
Although with some certainty, look at it to be via the draft.
Smith is fine with leaving the big-dollar signings to others.
NT Jamal Williams
--RB Marcus Mason, the newest Charger, had 127 yards on 32 carries for the Redskins last year before he was released. "We've followed his progress through his young career," general manager A.J. Smith said, "and when he came available, we decided to give him an opportunity to earn a spot with the Chargers."
--Special-teams ace Kassim Osgood could finally get his long-awaited chance to contribute as a wide receiver after the free agent signed with Jacksonville. "I'm pleased to announce J'ville is in the house!" Osgood said via Twitter. "The Black and Teal Man of Steel is for real!"
--CB Antonio Cromartie is hopeful a fresh start will return him to his Pro Bowl-caliber of play. Cromartie was traded to the Jets for a third-round pick in 2011, which could become a second-rounder based on Cromartie's playing time. "I think this is going to work out for me and the Jets' organization," Cromartie said. "I'm not going to let them down in any way."
--In one offseason. Smith has released ex-GM Bobby Beathard's last remaining pick in Williams and the late John Butler's best pick in LaDainian Tomlinson.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "This is a unique, different year that all teams are working their way through. It's just unchartered waters." -- GM A.J. Smith on building a squad heading into an uncapped season.
OFFSEASON STRATEGY The Chargers are believed to be zeroing in defensive tackles Jared Odrick (Penn State) and Terrence Cody (Alabama). UCLA's Brian Price is also a possibility, but his size isn't as keen as what Odrick and Cody can offer.
If the Chargers surprise some and go with a running back with their 28th overall pick, Stanford's Toby Gerhard or Fresno State's Ryan Mathews should be in the mix.
RB Darren Sproles
2. Defensive tackle: The Chargers were late finding a replacement for Jamal Williams, a three-time Pro Bowler who has been breaking down in recent seasons. The Chargers now need to move fast, unless they want to spend another season plugging the defense's biggest hole in the middle. Ryon (CQ) Bingham, Williams' backup, should return. But he doesn't have the girth and mass that Williams displayed.
3. Cornerback: The Chargers once bragged this was among the team's deepest position. But they grew tired of babysitting the talented but immature Antonio Cromartie and shipped the Pro Bowler to the Jets. There are some bodies behind Cromartie, but can any of them separate themselves to prove they are up to taking Cromartie's spot?
FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--C Dennis Norman is at a spot where the team has depth and likely won't come back.
--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.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers)
--*C Eric Ghiaciuc (not tendered as RFA) won't have a place with the number of linemen -- when healthy -- ahead of him.
--*OLB Marques Harris (not tendered as RFA) is a decent pass rusher but the Chargers will likely see him go where he would get more of a chance to contribute.
--*LB Dontarrious Thomas (not tendered as RFA) seldom saw the field when arriving late last year and appears to be a goner.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (*indicates restricted because of uncapped year)
--RT Jeromey Clary (tendered at $1.684M with second-round pick as compensation) will return but will be pushed by Brandyn Dombrowski for a starting job.
--*ILB Tim Dobbins (tendered at $1.176M with fifth-round pick as compensation) is a solid backup after getting lapped by Brandon Siler; should return.
--*WR Malcom Floyd (tendered at $3.168M with first- and third-round picks as compensation) could likely get more passes thrown his way elsewhere, but he likes San Diego and will likely take a little less to remain here.
--*WR Vincent Jackson (tendered at $3.268M with first- and third-round picks as compensation) 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 (tendered at $1.226M with first-round pick as compensation) 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 (tendered at $3.168M with first- and third-round picks as compensation) is a stud at left tackle and among the team's biggest offseason priorities.
--*OLB Shawne Merriman (tendered at $3.168M with first- and third-round picks as compensation) 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 (tendered at $7.283M with first- and third-round picks as compensation) was tendered after it was first thought the Chargers would let him go.
--*QB Charlie Whitehurst (tendered at $1.176M with third-round pick as compensation) 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 (tendered at $470,000) can deliver a burst off the ball and is keen on special teams. He should be brought back.
--FB Mike Tolbert (tendered at $470,000) continues to improve and the Chargers could give him more carries in the base offense, depending on the situation at running back.
--DT Alfonso Boone: UFA; 2 yrs, terms unknown.
--*DT Antonio Garay: Not tendered as RFA; terms unknown.
--TE Kris Wilson: UFA; 2 yrs, terms unknown.
--RB Marcus Mason (waivers Redskins).
--RB Michael Bennett (released).
--CB Antonio Cromartie (traded Jets).
--TE Brandon Manumaleuna: UFA Bears; $15M/5 yrs, $2M SB/$3M RB.
--WR Kassim Osgood: UFA Jaguars; $6.675M/3 yrs, $2.975M guaranteed.
--RB LaDainian Tomlinson (released).
--NT Jamal Williams (released).