SAN DIEGO (AP) — Speedy little Darren Sproles is staying with the San Diego Chargers, after all.
The Chargers placed the maximum first- and third-round tender on Sproles on Thursday, one of two surprise moves in the hours before free agency began.
The Chargers also released tackle Jamal Williams, a 12-year veteran who has been the run-stuffing anchor of the defensive line. Williams sustained an arm injury in the 2009 season opener and missed the rest of the year. He'll turn 34 next month and also has a history of knee injuries.
Williams had been one of just two players left from Bobby Beathard's tenure as general manager. Beathard, who retired in 2000, picked Williams in the second round of the 1998 supplemental draft.
Sproles was offered a contract for $7,283,000. If the five-year veteran signs an offer sheet with another team, San Diego would have the right to match the offer or receive first- and third-round draft picks as compensation for losing him.
Six days earlier, word made its way around the NFL that the Chargers informed Sproles' agent, Gary Wichard, that they didn't intend to tender the running back.
"We talked about either-or scenarios, and I think what happens when you have those conversations is that they end up going to the agents and they end up going to the media and then somehow it gets twisted and it goes in different directions," Chargers general manager A.J. Smith said.
"We decided that in the best interests of the Chargers, that this is what we're going to do."
Said Wichard: "I know they always wanted Darren back and we've talked about that. It gives us an opportunity to continue to talk about the long-term deal both sides want. I think they realize there's tremendous interest in Darren out there."
The sides didn't make progress on a long-term deal last offseason after Sproles was made the franchise player, a designation that earned him $6.6 million.
There might be more impetus to get a deal done this year, now that LaDainian Tomlinson is gone. He was released last week after nine brilliant seasons in which he reached eighth on the NFL's career rushing list with 12,490 yards.
"We'd like for him to be here long-term, like last year, but I don't know where that goes," Smith said.
The Chargers, whose season ended with a shocking playoff loss to the New York Jets, still don't view Sproles as an every-down back. And with backup Michael Bennett being released Thursday, they need running backs.
"Bottom line, there's some new running backs coming in here, and we're going to do the best we can to get some folks in here," Smith said.
The Chargers have always valued Sproles as a multiple threat who can play running back, catch passes out of the backfield and return punts and kickoffs.
Sproles was second to Tomlinson last year with 343 yards and three touchdowns on 93 carries, an average of 3.7 yards per carry. He was fourth with 45 catches for 497 yards and four TDs. He was also the primary kickoff and punt returner and scored on a punt return.
"None of that has changed," Smith said. "There might be some games he'll have a different, heavier load, and that would be up to the coaches, depending on the opponent. But no, the role is the same for him. It's why we got him in the draft and how we've utilized him."
The Chargers also made first-and third-round tenders to outside linebacker Shawne Merriman ($3,269,000), left tackle Marcus McNeill ($3,168,000) and wide receivers Malcom Floyd ($3,168,000) and Vincent Jackson ($3,268,000).
Merriman's original five-year contract is expiring. But because next season is an uncapped year, he would have needed six seasons to become an unrestricted free agent.
"No, I don't like the situation but I'm along with 212 players," Merriman said in an e-mail, referring to the number of players impacted by the uncapped year. "I just want to get on with playing football because that's the only thing that matters."
Jackson is a Pro Bowler coming off his second straight 1,000-yard season. He recently pleaded guilty to his second DUI since joining the NFL and likely will face at least a one-game suspension by the league next season.
"We're monitoring that situation and we're aware of all those things with Vincent," Smith said.
Smith said releasing Williams "was just a difficult decision. We're making them all the time here."
The GM said the Chargers continue to try to move cornerback Antonio Cromartie.
"He's on the market and there's a little bit of interest," Smith said.
Cromartie has drawn plenty of fan ire after freezing up as New York's Shonn Greene hit the hole at the start of a 53-yard touchdown run that gave the Jets a 10-point lead midway through the fourth quarter. Cromartie eventually caught up to Greene and gave him a shove well after he'd crossed the goal line.
Notes: Of the Chargers' seven unrestricted free agents, tackle Jon Runyan, center-guard Dennis Norman and special teams ace Kassim Osgood definitely won't be back, Smith said. ... Other restricted free agents tendered were DE Travis Johnson, first round, $1,226,000; T Jeromey Clary, second-round, $1,684,000; third-string QB Charlie Whitehurst, third round, $1,176,000; and LB Tim Dobbins, fifth-round, $1,176,000. ... Of the 10 Chargers who either had or will have surgery, LB Kevin Burnett (neck) is listed as having a three-to-five-month rehab.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.