- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 28, 2001

One of the Washington Redskins' top two draft picks is a starter, and the other has just one man to beat.
First-round wide receiver Rod Gardner has won the job over veteran Kevin Lockett, and second-round cornerback Fred Smoot is competing against only Darrell Green, team sources said yesterday.
Lockett, the Kansas City Chiefs' third wideout option in recent years, and Gardner have been told by coach Marty Schottenheimer that Gardner is in line to start across from Michael Westbrook in the Sept. 9 opener at San Diego. Gardner started Friday's preseason win over Cleveland, but the switch was played down.
"It felt good to hear that [I'm starting]," Gardner said. "It felt good that Coach has the confidence in me that I can help the team. Now I'm going to go out and practice and continue to improve, so when the regular season starts there won't be [any] doubt."
Lockett was disappointed but took the news well, sources said. Although he believed the starting job was his to lose, he was told before he signed in April that the Redskins might draft a receiver in the first or second round and, if so, Lockett would compete against that player for a starting job.
Gardner has just one catch in the preseason but has displayed talent in practice. He nearly had a touchdown against Cleveland but a first-quarter pass from Jeff George was a bit late. Yesterday Gardner blamed himself for that play.
"Right now I feel my preseason is going well," Gardner said. "Every game I feel my routes, techniques and blocking are getting better. Other than that one pass I dropped, it's been good. Now I've been put in a position to really show what I can do."
Smoot is trying to prove in Thursday's preseason finale at New England that he is prepared to start across from Champ Bailey. So far Smoot has showed skill particularly the ability to close on receivers but he still makes some mistakes. On Thursday he hopes to eliminate the mistakes.
"This [game] basically will say do I start or do I still sit and learn," said Smoot, whose chance of starting Thursday is better because Bailey (foot) is unlikely to play.
Sources said cornerback Donovan Greer, a fifth-year veteran who signed a day before the April 21 draft, no longer is a serious candidate to start.
The upside to both Gardner and Smoot is key for them. Coaches believe Gardner's performance is equal to Lockett's and his potential greater, while Smoot's performance is still being evaluated.
The question is how quickly Smoot, 22, will surpass Green, 41. Coaches know it will happen at some point, but they don't want Smoot's learning curve to cost the team too dearly in the meantime. And they are trying to determine how much better Smoot will be late in the season if he is made a starter immediately.
"[Upside is] a factor, there's no doubt about it," Schottenheimer said. "Where are we in Week 4? Where are we in Week 8? Where are we in Week 12? Where are we at 16? 18? 20? That factors into it. And that's the hard part."
Said Smoot: "No doubt the earlier I play, the better I'll be… . I feel [my] potential is there. I feel [my] talent is there. Not more [than Green], but as much. And I don't know as much. But that's why I stick around him, to learn those things."
Smoot dropped into the draft's second round because of questions about his off-field behavior. But the affable rookie has adjusted well, acting like a good replacement for the retired Deion Sanders. The two spoke after Sanders retired, and Smoot later reported to training camp wearing Sanders' No. 21.
Smoot has surrendered just one pass this preseason, by Schottenheimer's count, though teammates say he continues to make some mistakes. But his belief in himself remains high.
"I got even more confident by playing this preseason," Smoot said. "I got down to earth and realized it's still football. This is what I've been doing since I was 7, 6 years old."
Green also believes he has performed well enough to start. But Green called the battle "a no-conversation issue" and added: "I'm very impressed with Fred. I think he's come along pretty well… . He's got a lot of good qualities. He's got a great future."
Two other competitions for starting jobs center and fullback essentially have been resolved. Schottenheimer said center Cory Raymer and Donnell Bennett have won their respective battles. However, just as in any other competition, things can change.


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