The Washington Redskins have become something of a doughnut of a football team: They have a hole in their middle -- a dearth of the four- to six-year players that are the heart of most successful football teams.
The Redskins have only three players -- running backs Brian Mitchell and Ricky Ervins, and defensive tackle Bobby Wilson -- left from general manager Charley Casserly's first three drafts (1990-1992), and Ervins is a free agent who might depart.
Casserly, though, isn't discouraged as he heads into his sixth draft as general manager Saturday and Sunday, though he faces as much pressure as any executive in the league. He said the Redskins are on a stable course after going through an overhaul the past three years.
"We had three [coaching] staffs in three years and we didn't have any continuity in the selection process," he said. "This has been the most stable off-season we've had here in about five years. That's going to lend itself to success in the draft."
He's referring to the fact that Joe Gibbs quit in March 1993 and Richie Petitbon was fired by owner Jack Kent Cooke in January 1994 after 10 months on the job.
Norv Turner is now in his second year as coach and is working to rebuild a team that went 3-13 in his first year.
Casserly said that the first draft of the Turner era -- led by the selection of quarterback Heath Shuler with the No. 3 overall pick -- was "very successful," though it's really too early to judge it.
This year, the Redskins have the fourth pick, and Turner wants a wide receiver to give Shuler another target to team with Henry Ellard.
Since running back Ki-Jana Carter, offensive tackle Tony Boselli and quarterback Steve McNair are expected to be the first three picks by the Carolina Panthers, Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Oilers, respectively, the Redskins will have their pick of the receivers.
That means Colorado's Michael Westbrook is the odds-on favorite to be Washington's first pick.
Westbrook is rated the best of this year's crop of receivers, slightly ahead of the two others likely to go on the first round, Joey Galloway of Ohio State and J. J. Stokes of UCLA.
After catching 76 passes in 1992, Westbrook tailed off to 33 and 36 the past two seasons, respectively, when Colorado stressed the run, but he made all the highlight shows with his 64-yard "Hail Mary" touchdown catch with no time left on the clock that beat Michigan last season.
"He's obviously a big, physical receiver and he's been a consistent performer," Turner said. "He went from being the featured guy to being a guy who wasn't getting all the attention, but he handled that well."
Westbrook did have a few problems. He was on academic probation as a freshman and legal probation for six months last year on a third-degree assault charge after he was arrested for hitting a university maintenance worker whom Westbrook said had hit his girlfriend. Westbrook was suspended for the season opener because of that incident.
Turner brushes off those incidents. "Those are the things that go with maturing and growing up," he said.
Nevertheless, picking Westbrook could be controversial because the Redskins would be bypassing defensive lineman Warren Sapp of Miami, and they're desperate for help in the defensive line. They were 27th against the run last season and failed to sign a lineman through free agency.
Defensive linemen are traditionally drafted ahead of wide receivers because they're usually more difficult to find.
Turner, though, argued that the free-agent linebackers and safeties the Redskins signed (Marvcus Patton, Rod Stephens, James Washington and Stanley Richard) will improve the overall defense even without additions to the line.
He also is not concerned that the Redskins traded up to the fourth pick in 1992 to take a wide receiver (Desmond Howard) who was a bust.
"People have different philosophies, but the one thing that a player [drafted high] has got to be is a successful player," Turner said. "Look at Tim Brown and Sterling Sharpe. They've been successful and they're the type of players you can expect to get at those picks."
Brown was the sixth overall pick and Sharpe the seventh in 1992, but Irvin, Jerry Rice and Alvin Harper are among the standout wide receivers who were taken later on the first round in recent years.
Since Galloway and Stokes are also rated as first-rounders, Casserly hasn't ruled out trading down on the first round and taking one of them. The Redskins, who have a lot of holes to fill, then could get an extra pick.
Since several teams are interested in trading up for Sapp, the Redskins could be involved in a lot of trade talk Saturday. Casserly already has gotten calls, but the serious offers may not come until draft day.
"It's an interesting situation for us," he said. "We may get an offer we can't refuse."
Casserly said he hasn't had serious talks about trading up with Carolina to take Carter. He has seven picks in this draft and isn't keen on giving them up.
The first-round pick will get most of the attention, but the Redskins know they have to make the most of all seven picks.
Noting that the Redskins drafted defensive end Dexter Nottage and quarterback Gus Frerotte on the final two rounds last year, Turner said, "The last four or five picks are as important as the rest of it."