At some point before high noon on Tuesday, the excitement level within a certain meeting room at Redskin Park will heighten considerably.

That's when Washington should be approaching the moment of truth; its chance to make a pick in the opening round of the NFL draft for the first time since 1968.

"It's going to be a pretty exciting time," General Manager Bobby Beathard said. "We'll have plenty of warning, of course, when our turn is coming up, so it won't be a matter of a hurried decision. But you never know what's going to happen."

Admittance to Redskin draft central is by invitation only. The club's scouts will be there, along with any assistant coaches who care to sit in on history. And, of course, Beathard and Coach Jack Pardee will be in the center of the brain trust.

Each club is given 15 minutes to make its first-round decision. Few need that long, even those 18th in line like the Redskins. But since no team is quite sure what choices another is going to make, there are always early surprises -- and last-minute changes in thinking.

It's never a matter of not knowing what you are going to do when your time comes," Bethard said. "You have certain people in mind that you want. But I've never been through a draft yet, where there weren't players available in the first round that you thought would already by selected."

In theory, Washington's opening pick could be made by one of the office secretaries. That's how thoroughly Beathard and hiss associates have mapped out the first round and the alternatives they could face when the big moment arrives.

Over the past week, the scouting department has held a series of long and detailed meetings. They have reviewed once more each of the 1000-plus players they've seen this year, giving each a final rating.

The scouts conducted their own mock draft, listing the players on a huge board in order to their Redskin-assigned rating. They stopped after six rounds.

It is this mock draft board, with its emphasis on the first round, that will dominate the Redskin drafting room on Tuesday. As each team makes its choice in the opening round, the name will be removed from the mock draft board. When Washington's turn comes, there should be no guesswork involved: Beathard will select the highest ranked player still on the board.

"If the player who we feel is the fifth or sixth best in the draft is still left when our turn comes up," he said, "then we'll take him for sure. And sometimes that can happen."

That's why Washington could wind up with, for example, a wide receiver or a cornerback in the first round when they began the draft figuring to pick a defenseive lineman or a running back. If receiver Lam Jones or cornerback Roland Jones is still available when the Redskins' turn comes up, how could they pass up either?

But if the draft proceeds according to how Beathard and his associates figure it will then they will be prepared. They have picked out one player they want the most, then an alternate choice if No. 1 isn't available and still a third athlete, in case one and two are gone.

"You never can be in a situation where you don't know what to do," Beathard said. "It happens so many times that you are ready to take a player and then the team ahead of you grabs him and you are upset. But you always have to have a backup ready to go with."

Yet things aren't quite that simple, at least in Beathard's mind. The Redskins' choice in the second round, acquired from the Rams, is next to last. That complicates things.

"Let's say we take a running back in the first round," he said, " and then we have to hope that the guy we want in the second round is still there when our turn comes. If he isn't, then maybe we should have taken our second-round guy in the first round and gamble that a running back good enough to upgrade that position would still be left at our turn in the second.

"It drives you nuts trying to figure out who will be left by the 27th pick in the second round. We've got two positions (running back and defensive lineman) we want to strengthen and we'd like to make sure we have the right players right away."

That's why Beathard has been working diligently to pull off a trade that would upgrade his second-round position. League sources say he's been offering mostly second-line players, along with running back Benny Malone. As of yesterday, he had no takers.

"Right now," he said, "we are figuring we are going into the draft with our current setup (nine picks in 12 rounds, second lowest in the league). That's how all our strategy will be devised."

During the draft, the Redskins will stay in touch with proceedings in New York via a telephone hookup with Tom Sullivan of their scouting department. It is Sullivan, relaying a message from Beathard, who tells the league what player Washington wants on each round.

"It's an exciting time, especially in the first round," Beathard said. "No matter how much you go through it you still get your adrenaline up.

"It always seems that the clock runs faster than normal. It's like the end of a game. You try to stay calm and stay within your system. You have to take the guy who is rated the highest. Otherwise, you start taking a lot of guys who aren't as good as what is available just to fill a need. And you wind up not getting a better commodity in the long run."

The final decision in every round will be made by Beathard. But he says it never comes down to him "needing to stop an argument in the room by saying, 'Okay this is the way it's goind to be.' We are all on the same page with this thing. We know what we need and who we want."

As the draft continues, it is likely Beathard and Pardee will consult about possible trades and talk to other teams about exchanging choices or players. That's how George Allen used to keep up interest in the early rounds, even though his Redskins never had a first-round selection.

"We'd have to scout the best players even though we knew we wouldn't be able to pick them," said Mike Allman, who has served under both Allen and Beathard. "After the early rounds, George would call us in and have us tell him about the top guys. Then he would call the teams involved and try to make trades."

Although Beathard has not been afraid to wheel and deal during his two years with the club, he still is highly committed to the draft. He also is not afraid to take a gamble and select players in the early round that most scouts rank lower. So don't be surprised if the Redskins' No. 1 choice is a shocker.

But if he is more conventional and goes with a better-known name, it seems likely his early running back selection would be either Auburn's Joe Cribbs, a 5-9, 190-pound speeder; Jackson State's Perry Harrington, a 5-11, 210-pounder who is stronger than Cribbs, or Earl Cooper of Rice, a 6-2, 225-pound power man. Most likely defensive linemen picks include Utah State's Rulon Jones, Washington's Doug Martin, Nebraska's Bill Barnett or Oklahoma's John Goodman.