The question remains how Smith will fill that vacancy. How can he go about resurrecting a Chargers running game that was merely pedestrian -- and that is being kind -- last year? How does he fix just an important component of a team wanting to late into the playoffs, but has been eliminated that past two years -- in Pittsburgh, against the Jets -- because it couldn't run?
It's obvious now that none of the free-agent running backs have moved Smith's needle. He dislikes signing free agents from other teams anyway, but he certainly wasn't going to get something -- an aging running back -- that wouldn't be an upgrade over Tomlinson, whom he just let go.
So the draft looks to be the best vehicle for Smith to explore in getting the Chargers' once-proud running game out of neutral.
And just maybe, Smith is placing the foundation for a jaw-dropping trade which can catapult the Chargers up the draft board from their current spot at No. 28.
By scooting up 20 spots in the second round when sending No. 3 quarterback Charlie Whitehurst to the Seahawks and collecting their 2011 third-round pick, Smith does have some ammunition. He also has his third-round pick for next year and one from the Jets that could translate into a second-rounder depending on Antonio Cromartie's playing time with his new team.
Of course, Smith isn't afraid to roll the dice on draft day.
He did just that when drafting and trading quarterback Eli Manning. He did so in packaging picks to move up to snag FS Eric Weddle and FB Jacob Hester.
RB C.J. Spiller
What's clear is Spiller won't be on the board at No. 28.
What's obvious is Smith needs a running back and isn't shy trying to concoct a package which could get him to Spiller.
Speculation? Yeah, welcome to life in the NFL during the draft month of April.
The Chargers still have Sproles, but he's considered a third-down back and a return-guy -- despite a salary which exceeds $7 million. Smith could also include Sproles in a deal, especially if he continues to hit roadblocks in trying to sign him to a long-term deal.
And while the Chargers also have a glaring need at nose tackle with Jamal Williams fleeing to Denver, there seems to be a smidgen of confidence that the journeymen filling that role on a rotating basis could be good enough, at least for this season.
Maybe so. Maybe Smith is bluffing. Maybe Smith is sending out the wrong signals so he can do the right thing.
But in the long run, Smith knows he needs a running back. And he will find any lane to get to one.
In an offseason filled with intrigue, entering an uncapped year, and rumors, it is getting close to the draft, an off-field rumor got a lot of play in San Diego recently. So, might Shawne Merriman ditch his playing career for a career in wrestling?
A long shot? You bet.
But it just shows how many different places Merriman is thought of as a productive product. The Chargers are among those thinking Merriman can again be a star -- in pro football.
Merriman hit the league like a stunning roundhouse, making the Pro Bowl in his first three seasons when racking up an NFL-best 39.5 sacks over that period.
But then a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's performance enhancing drug policy started a downward slide, which also included the devastating knee injury which cost him all but one game in 2008.
Merriman tried to rekindle the flame which made him one of the NFL's top pass-rushers last season. But he made more news off the field running with the Hollywood crowd than he did on it with four sacks.
But Merriman still has value. That was proven with a pro wrestling company floating his name. The Chargers, though, think he has what it takes to pin down another solid season in San Diego before likely becoming an unrestricted free agent.
Another year removed from a major operation and one year shy of cashing another big contract could be the impetus for a solid season.
"Everybody talks about it takes another year to come back from a surgery," coach Norv Turner said. "The biggest thing, and I had this conversation about with Philip Rivers -- he said it's not so much the knee that takes a year, but while you're rehabbing your knee it doesn't allow you to do all the other things you need to do to get ready for a season."
Merriman is working hard, and the Chargers truly believe that. Although, like most tendered restricted free agents, he's not doing it at the team facility.
But the knee is better and that should allow Merriman to focus on getting his whole body ready instead of just fixing a bum knee.
"Shawne went through the year and missed time with a groin, missed time with a foot," Turner added. "The knee wasn't the issue. So I think having a great off-season so he doesn't have those nagging injuries, and then the knee being a year better (is a positive).
"Shawne had a really great year last year. He just didn't have those game-changing type plays that we've all seen him have. But I think those will come. He's such a competitor, such a physical player, if he gets that step back he'll return as an outstanding pass rusher."
The Chargers will need him to be.
With questions remaining along the defensive line, combined with the introduction of a new starting cornerback to replace Antonio Cromartie and some not sold on second-year safety Kevin Ellison, the Chargers need to get after quarterbacks.
A healthy Merriman -- along with Shaun Phillips -- could do just that.
WR Vincent Jackson
"I think people took notice of them last year," coach Norv Turner said. "The development, I think, started two years ago. And if you look at what those two guys have done over the last two years in terms of big plays, getting the ball up the field, and obviously Vincent going over 1,000 yards for the second straight year, Philip going over 4,000 yards for the second straight year, they're on the same page, and it's a great pair to watch because they can do some great things."
--The Chargers have started their offseason workouts. It's a facility full of players, although tendered restricted free agents aren't training there: OLB Shawne Merriman, LT Marcus McNeill, WRs Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd. However, Darren Sproles is working with his teammates despite being a franchise free agent.
--The team signed another backup cornerback in Nathan Vasher. He played in 15 games last year and had one interception. In 2005, when playing for Chargers defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, Vasher had a Pro Bowl season.
--Turner wasn't surprised No. 3 quarterback Charlie Whitehurst drew outside interest. Before he signed with the Seahawks, Turner knew that the Cardinals were interested after speaking with their coach. "When I talked to Ken Whisenhunt, he said to me, 'I watched both your guys, Billy (Volek) and Charlie, in pregame warmups, and I was really impressed.' Then you put the film on and you watch some of the throws that Charlie makes, and you know going in that he hasn't played a lot, but you see what he's capable of doing physically and you say, 'Hey. He's been in a good system.' John Ramsdell is as good a quarterbacks coach as there is in the league in terms of handling a guy's mechanics and preparing him on a day-to-day basis. And our quarterbacks have had success, and I think people knew why he wasn't playing -- hell, we had two good guys. So I think it's worth taking a shot on him."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I don't know that you ever put that behind you in terms of making sure you learn from the things that happened. But in terms of going on and building for what we want to get done, you start as soon as you come back. You look at your team, you look at the things you need to get done, and you go to work." -- Coach Norv Turner on returning to work with the team after that heartbreaking loss to the Jets in the playoffs.
The Chargers continue to pass on bringing free agents into Chargers Park, content attending Pro Days and looking to beef up the roster through the draft.
While they have added a couple backup cornerbacks, the real value of the offseason was moving up 20 spots in the second round when peddling quarterback Charlie Whitehurst to the Seahawks and having another 2011 third-rounder (possibly a second-rounder) added to their vault when moving cornerback Antonio Cromartie to the Jets.
1. Running back: The Chargers move the ball through the air. But someone has to be behind Philip Rivers and currently there's not much there. The removal of LaDainian Tomlinson and Michael Bennett from the roster means this need leaps off the Chargers' offseason page. The Chargers have the dynamic Darren Sproles, but he's more of a situational back than one to be counted on for yards between the tackles.
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 wanting 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? The Chargers have added Donald Strickland and Nathan Vasher in the offseason, but this spot remains a question mark.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--C Dennis Norman is at a spot where the team has depth and won't come back.
--OL Jon Runyan is going to retire and run for Congress.
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.
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.
--DT Alfonso Boone: UFA; 2 yrs, terms unknown.
--*DT Antonio Garay: Not tendered as RFA; terms unknown.
--DT Ian Scott: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--FB Mike Tolbert: ERFA; $470,000/1 yr.
--TE Kris Wilson: UFA; 2 yrs, terms unknown.
--RB Marcus Mason (waivers Redskins).
--CB Donald Strickland: FA Jets; 2 yrs, terms unknown.
--CB Nate Vasher: FA Bears; $4.5M/2 yrs.
--RB Michael Bennett (released).
--WR Demetrius Byrd (released/non-football injury).
--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).
--*QB Charlie Whitehurst: RFA; Re-signed, traded to Seahawks.
--NT Jamal Williams (released).