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Potential surprises abound on first round of preseason depth charts

Kendall Hunter appeared to be in trouble with the 49ers' offseason moves at running back, but as of now he's still the main backup to Frank Gore. (Ed Szczepanski-US PRESSWIRE)

So how much attention should we all pay to starting lineups on the first weekend of the preseason?

"Be careful reading anything into depth charts or anything else." -- Jim Schwartz

OK, sure. Still, we've been waiting all offseason for some game action, so surely there's something to be gained from seeing how teams line up after a few weeks of camp.

"We released a depth chart, strictly because it's league mandated, I guess, so we did it." -- Greg Schiano

Yeah, but ...

“I didn’t want to put a depth chart out, but they told me I had to. I don’t think you can write a whole lot into the depth chart because we are still evaluating and looking at players." -- Romeo Crennel

Sigh. Well, despite the warnings of every coach in the league, the mandatory release of depth charts prior to Week 1 of the preseason does at least open the door for some guarded analysis. There's a long way to go until roster cuts come about, and even longer until the regular season opens, but we can start to get some idea of where players stand in early August.

Here are a few situations that stand out as possible surprises going forward:

Buffalo Bills: Tyler Thigpen over Vince Young at No. 2 QB

This may just be a case of Thigpen having a year's experience in the Buffalo system while Young is a newcomer, but it's interesting nonetheless. Young looked like a pretty solid fit for the Bills' offense. He has really struggled thus far, though, and the depth chart is an indication of that. Considering Young's only in on a one-year deal, he leaves himself in major jeopardy of losing his roster spot if he can't pick up his game.

• Carolina Panthers: Thomas Davis over Luke Kuechly at LB

This is kind of a running theme for early depth charts -- veterans holding spots over rookies, even if that's not the reality. Coaches do this in cases as a show of respect to their veterans, like Davis, who is in his eighth season with Carolina. And they also want to make a point to their rookies that nothing will be handed to them. If the regular season started on Sunday, Kuechly almost certainly would be on the field.

Cincinnati Bengals: Brandon Tate opposite A.J. Green at starting WR

Tate's ascension up the depth chart isn't so much a surprise as it is something worth taking note of (especially for you fantasy players out there). Green quickly established himself as a superstar during his rookie season, but Cincinnati has spent the past several months trying to find him a complementary piece. Tate appears to have the edge on guys like Armon Binns, Mohamed Sanu and others ... at least for now.

Cleveland Browns: John Hughes at starting DT

Plenty of people (including yours truly) scoffed when the Browns used a third-round pick on Hughes. Just a few months later, that decision is either about to pay dividends or show off just how desperate Cleveland's situation is at defensive tackle. Maybe a little bit of both. With Phil Taylor sidelined and Ahtyba Rubin slowly making his way back from injury, Hughes has leapfrogged Scott Paxson for a starting shot up front.

Houston Texans: Backup receivers

Andre Johnson and Kevin Walter are listed as Houston's 1-2 receivers -- no surprise there. But take note of what's happening behind that pair on the depth chart, where rookie Keshawn Martin and underachieving veteran Bryant Johnson (six catches for 90 yards last year) are next in line. That puts Martin and Johnson ahead of Lester Jean, who the Texans are supposedly high on, and another 2012 draft pick, DeVier Posey.

• Kansas City Chiefs: Jamaal Charles over Peyton Hillis at RB

The surprise with Kansas City's situation at running back only comes because Charles is still battling back from the torn ACL he suffered last year. He's expected to suit up Friday for the Chiefs' preseason opener vs. Arizona, which obviously puts him on pace to play in Week 1. The fact that the Chiefs did not hesitate to restore Charles to his No. 1 role could be an indication that he's ready for a big bounce-back year.

• Miami Dolphins: David Garrard as No. 1 QB

The Dolphins' quarterback battle promises to rage throughout the preseason, with Garrard mixing it up with Matt Moore and Ryan Tannehill. Garrard has been solid in early workouts, too, while Moore carries a reputation as a guy that's better in games than he is in practices. We will have to wait and see how this all plays out, but as of the first week of preseason play, it appears that Garrard has the inside track to start in Miami.

• Pittsburgh Steelers: Trai Essex over Mike Adams at LT

There's a pretty legit chance that this falls under the same category as Kuechly -- the coaching staff wanting to make a rookie earn his keep. Essex has 24 starts over the past three seasons for Pittsburgh, but he's been so underwhelming that just about everyone penciled Adams into the starting lineup after he was taken in Round 2 in April. You'd have to consider it a relatively large upset if Essex maintained his starting job.

• San Francisco 49ers: Kendall Hunter as Frank Gore's backup

Hunter played Robin to Gore's Batman last season, and the 49ers were so excited at the prospect of that setup again in 2012 that they signed Brandon Jacobs in free agency and drafted LaMichael James. It's a crowded situation in the San Francisco backfield, without question. Will Hunter still see the majority of the reps when Gore needs a breather? If so, then you have to really question the motives behind the Jacobs and James additions.

• Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Rookies all over

Mark Barron was a virtual lock to assume Tampa Bay's starting strong safety role the moment he was drafted, and he has that slot held down. The intrigue comes with a pair of other rookies: linebacker Lavonte David and running back Doug Martin. The expectations for Martin are exceedingly high, but if the current depth chart is any indication, he still has work to do to surpass LeGarrette Blount at RB. David, meanwhile, has ascended to a starting LB gig, maybe a little faster than most people anticipated.

• Washington Redskins: Tim Hightower at No. 1 RB

OK, so we're not exactly closing with a jaw-dropping twist here. Hightower was on his way to a solid year as Washington's No. 1 back last season before falling to injury. Roy Helu had the most success in his stead, compiling more than 1,000 total yards -- so it's a little surprising to see Helu at No. 3 on the chart, behind Hightower and Evan Royster. But just to emphasize how much this all means right now, Hightower won't even play in Washington's preseason opener, so Royster and Helu will split No. 1 duties. In other words, the depth chart doesn't tell us much here.

Oh ... maybe that's what all those coaches were talking about.

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