Chargers could defy low expectations

It’s early May, but there’s plenty of non-Bountygate sizzle in the NFL.

We pledge allegiance to the Chargers, wonder about the Ravens sans Suggs and look ahead at the impact draft picks and sleeper teams in a nugget-filled SCHEIN 9.

1. NORV!

Norv Turner and I have a wonderful love/hate relationship. I give him a ton of credit. He doesn’t hear things secondhand. He listens to our SiriusXM NFL radio show en route to the office. Norv knows my takes, both positive and negative. And Turner’s been around the block. He knows he almost lost his gig at the end of last year, another season in which the Chargers didn’t live up to their preseason expectations. But when we talked with Norv on the show, it was clear he knows what needs to change from 2011 to 2012. And the response from Charger Nation after the interview was one that I hadn’t heard from the San Diego fan base. Turner was so emotional, intelligent and energetic during the 20-minute conversation that Chargers fans called the show and chimed in on Twitter, pledging their allegiance to Norv and declaring, once again, that 2012 would be their year.

And it actually might happen.

This season, the Chargers won’t be puffed up in the press. They won’t be picked to win the division. The Broncos are now the media’s darlings after the trade for Peyton Manning. But don’t let the free-agency defection of Vincent Jackson fool you. The Chargers have put together an excellent offseason.

Turner said the biggest issue on defense last year that must be corrected was the inability to get to the quarterback and, consequently, the Chargers’ inability to get the opposition off the field on third down. Turner rightly believes San Diego has two instant impact rookies to aid the cause, Melvin Ingram and Kendall Reyes. Ingram was a true steal at No. 18. Nobody would’ve been surprised to see him go off the draft board in the top 10. Turner told us the Chargers had him rated as the top linebacker in the draft. Ingram corrects the biggest weakness. Reyes is a versatile and energetic defensive lineman whom San Diego gobbled up in Round 2.

San Diego also signed rock-steady linebacker Jarret Johnson, who upgrades the core in the locker room, practice field and on game day. I loved the Chargers’ signing of Robert Meachem to replace Jackson. Turner loves Meachem’s game-breaking ability and knack for going up and getting the ball. The Chargers are going to feature Meachem more than he was used in New Orleans, and I echo Turner’s sentiments that the wideout will be up for the challenge. Turner gushed about bringing in both Eddie Royal and Roscoe Parrish, filling a major void for Philip Rivers in the slot.

And then there’s Rivers. Turner believes two things led to Rivers’ interception happy ways last year. Norv stressed that there must be continuity and legit depth on the offensive line. The front office went out of its way to ensure that by re-signing Jared Gaither. Thirteen different linemen played for San Diego last year, and it killed them.

Instead of Rivers living up to my lofty status as a preseason MVP, Rivers was trying to do too much and force the issue, according to Turner. Perhaps it was a function of the offensive line, the defensive deficiencies or the rash of injuries. But Turner, a noted quarterback guru, has studied all the errors and swears it won’t happen again.

I still believe Rivers is a star and the best quarterback in the AFC West. That includes No. 18 in Denver. Look across the board. The Chargers should be better than the Broncos.

I’ve been here before. I’ve been “Norved,” let down by the Chargers. Remember Dante Rosario? Remember the Bengals in 2010? The Jets in 2011?

But maybe flying under the radar is the best-case scenario for Norv in a make-or-break year for him in San Diego.

I like the look and feel of the Chargers, yet again.

2. T Sizzle fizzles

The playing field got leveled in the AFC North when Terrell Suggs injured his Achilles last week. Baltimore was the clear division favorite and arguably the Super Bowl favorite in the AFC before the injury. But losing Suggs for a significant period of time is a major blow for the Ravens.

I often praise the Ravens brass for handling the NFL Draft with aplomb. The club believes in Paul Krueger and Sergio Kindle, who had his first full offseason in Baltimore as he heads into his third season. Eric DeCosta, the Ravens’ savvy director of player personnel, told us the club believes in high second-round pick Courtney Upshaw to play a big role. DeCosta said that, like Suggs, Upshaw has a great nose for the football and makes big plays in the fourth quarter.

Suggs was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2011 for a reason. While the sack-master can’t be duplicated, the coaches need to maximize the talent of Krueger, Kindle and Upshaw.

3. Dream team

In truth, Vince Young was a year late. Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid and general manager Howie Roseman honestly put together a dream draft class. Fletcher Cox and Mychal Kendricks should start. Roseman told me that defensive end Vinny Curry was the “classic highest player on the board pick” and was a steal at 59 overall. The Eagles plucked Brandon Boykin in the fourth round, and he’s a second-round talent.

With a full offseason, the likes of beleaguered defensive coordinator Juan Castillo and corner Nnamdi Asomugha should be more adjusted.

4. Fact and fiction about Bruce Irvin

Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider doesn’t hold back. He bowled us over with honesty that Seattle had Irvin rated as the third-best defensive player in the draft behind Mark Barron and Luke Kuechly. Seattle traded down once in the first round but refused to do so again because Schneider was convinced the Jets were going to pick him. And the Jets certainly liked Irvin through the draft process.

Schneider isn’t concerned about Irvin’s arrest, quipping, “Who hasn’t had fun on St. Patrick’s Day?” He isn’t concerned about his lack of education. Schneider thinks he got a star pass rusher who aids the Seahawks cause of “winning a street fight” and that’s good enough for him. And his reputation is officially staked on it.

5. AFC South sleeper?

It is easy to forget that the Titans, in Mike Munchak’s first year as a head coach, had the exact same regular-season record as the Super Bowl-champion Giants. It’s truly amazing that Tennessee went 9-7, considering the holdout and lack of desire from Chris Johnson in a wasteful campaign.

The Texans lost some key veterans. Munchak’s Titans had a very strong draft. The coach stressed to us on the SiriusXM Blitz that there will be an open competition at quarterback between Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker. Keep your eye on the Titans this year. They play hard. They are coming up.

6. Buc Ball

Greg Schiano’s no-nonsense approach is exactly what Tampa needed after the club quit on Raheem Morris. And Schiano has proved it isn’t lip service. The club added three big-ticket, key free agents in Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks and Eric Wright. Then, in the draft, after Cleveland moved up to get running back Trent Richardson, Schiano traded back two slots, knowing he could get his top defensive target, safety Mark Barron. And then Schiano and the Bucs traded back into the first round to grab the physical runner we profiled before the draft, Boise State bowling ball Doug Martin. When we talked with Schiano on the SiriusXM Blitz, he said he not only fell in love with the talent of his two first picks but their character and ability to win on the collegiate level at Alabama and Boise State, respectively.

And I loved Schiano’s class in signing his former Rutgers player Eric LeGrand, who was paralyzed in a 2010 game, to a deal to live out a lifetime dream. LeGrand told us he was overcome with emotion and raved about what Schiano has done for him and him family since the devastating hit.

If Josh Freeman can get back to his 2010 clutch form, Tampa is going to surprise people this year.

And I’ll go out on this limb. I think Freeman will bounce back.

7. The next Ray Lewis?

Hyperbole alert!! Hyperbole alert!!

Rex Ryan told the news media after a Jets rookie minicamp practice that neophyte linebacker DeMario Davis has leadership skills similar to Ray Lewis’.

Come on, Rex.

If you watched our video grading every draft, you know I loved the Davis pick. He’s a do-it-all linebacker who can replace Bart Scott. It was a true steal.

But why would Ryan ever put that kind of pressure on a third-round draft pick? There’s nothing wrong with simply stating that Davis looks the part and ending it there.

8. Best special teams ever

Jaguars coach Mike Mularkey made a few things very clear when he joined us on the SiriusXM Blitz to talk about the Jags’ very active, successful and controversial draft.

The Jags had been targeting Justin Blackmon for a while and felt as if they were in no-man’s land picking seventh overall. They desperately needed a potential star receiver who, as Mularkey put it, “believes he can beat everyone and he actually can.” Gene Smith smartly made the aggressive deal to get up to the fifth slot. But in the process, the Jaguars dealt their fourth-round pick.

Enter a third-round punter.

Mularkey explained that the club tried to trade down a get a pick back but a good offer was not to be found. Mularkey knew there would be criticism of the Bryan Anger pick but truly didn’t care. He said, “I made my living in the NFL on special teams. Excellent special teams are mandatory.”

I think a punter in the third round is asinine. Mularkey stands by his convictions.

9. Strong draft in the Cards

Quick — name the top front offices when it comes to draft-day domination.

Did you include Arizona? You should’ve.

Look at the Cardinals’ success rate of drafting starters and impact players. Coach Ken Whisenhunt, general manager Rod Graves and newly promoted vice president of player personnel Steve Keim are exceptional in the war room. Over the past five years, they have put together impressive and deep drafts. And this year was no exception. The Cardinals gave Kevin Kolb a great opportunity for success in Year 2 after a miserable 2011 when they smartly plucked Michael Floyd at No. 13. Whisenhunt told us he had Floyd rated as the seventh-best prospect in the draft.

The Cards played great down the stretch last season. They would’ve knocked off the Giants in the regular season if not for a terrible call on Victor Cruz. The Cardinals will be back in 2012. They are built for sustained success.