During Thursday's practice, cornerback Shawn Springs and Carlos Rogers chatted on the sidelines -- without helmets or pads -- near their position coach Dewayne Walker while watching 11-on-11 drills. By the end of the afternoon session, cornerback Eric Joyce was carted off the field from heat exhaustion.

Washington's cornerbacks have been hard hit by injuries, which left Walker with only four healthy players most of the week.

When the Redskins played the Baltimore Ravens in a scrimmage last week, cornerbacks Rufus Brown and Ade Jimoh were on the first unit. The injuries have forced Walker to give players on the bubble ample opportunities to show their abilities. Springs (a Pro Bowl alternate last season), Rogers (the ninth overall pick) and Walt Harris (the nickel back last season) are virtually guaranteed roster spots. But Brown, Jimoh, Joyce, Artrell Hawkins and Garnell Wilds are essentially competing for two spots.

"You always want to be healthy," said Walker, who had five cornerbacks on the team last season. "On the flip side of it, it kind of gives these guys opportunities. That's what they hope and dream for, and now they're getting it."

In Washington's preseason opener Saturday night, the little-known cornerbacks will get an opportunity against the Carolina Panthers, including former Redskins receiver Rod Gardner.

While Washington's offense struggled in the scrimmage, the defense was solid despite inexperienced cornerbacks getting the bulk of playing time. (Harris missed several practices last week because of a quadriceps injury before returning to the fold early this week. Wilds is also back after missing both Tuesday sessions because of thigh bruises.)

"You want the same production," Walker said. "The whole defensive staff, we're not going to make excuses. Those guys that step on the field on Saturday night, it's just like their starters. We're going to hold everybody accountable."

The banged-up defenders will be accountable for Gardner, traded last month for a conditional sixth-round pick Gardner has an outside shot at starting against his old team. Although Gardner is the No. 3 receiver on Carolina's depth chart, starter Keary Colbert (hamstring) is questionable.

"It's going to be tough to play against friends," Gardner told Panthers beat reporters Thursday. "I like the way the schedule worked out; it's going to be exciting to compete with them.

"Last year, there were times during the season when I felt like the offense forgot about me. Ultimately, I decided it wasn't going to work for me there."

Walker said: "There's no question, he's going to want to come in and do a little damage. That's going to be our number one priority: to make sure we don't make this a homecoming for him."

Jimoh seems to have an advantage because he has contributed to special teams over the past two seasons. But Jimoh said: "Everything is what you do for me now. I do have a passion for special teams. The more you can do the more your value."

Hawkins appeared in 14 games last season -- and started two -- for the Panthers. But the eighth-year veteran hasn't practiced in camp because of a hamstring injury. Hawkins, who is a strong performer on special teams, was signed to provide depth and seemed likely to make the team. However, Hawkins's spot is suddenly in jeopardy if he doesn't regain his health enough to perform during camp.

"He's got to earn it, just like the other guys," Walker said. "We're going to take the best guys."

Brown, Jimoh and Wilds are undrafted free agents, but last year exemplified that status is inconsequential to Washington's defensive coaches. Brown and Wilds didn't make their NFL debuts until late in the season. In the regular-season finale against Minnesota, Wilds showed promise, limiting star wideout Randy Moss for most of the game.

"Anytime there are injuries, it just means there are opportunities for somebody else," Springs said. "G-Money [Wilds] and Twitch [Brown] and those guys get to show what they can do."

Because assistant head coach of defense Gregg Williams blitzes the overwhelming majority of snaps, the cornerback position is critical in his system.

"It's a lot of pressure on the corners in our system," Springs said. "You know how Gregg puts pressure on the quarterbacks. That means we have to hold up."

Last season, Washington's cornerbacks thrived, with Fred Smoot and Springs as starters while Harris was solid as the unit's top reserve. With Smoot departing via free agency (Vikings), Harris appears likely to enter the season as starter. But the Redskins envision Rogers, the club's top-rated cornerback in April's draft, eventually becoming entrenched as a starter.

Note: Safety Sean Taylor reportedly bought a $900,000 home in Miami, his hometown. Taylor also owns a modest home in Ashburn, a few miles from Redskins Park.