With the drafting of Art Monk and the addition of veterans Morris Owens and Kenny Harrison, the Redskins began training camp certain they would be improved at wide receiver.

But even Offensive Coordinator Joe Walton couldn't have forseen the competition now taking place at this position, especially since the emergence of an unexpected contender, free agent Zion McKinney.

Add ninth-round pick Lawrence McCullough and free agent Steve Stapler and Walton has six new receivers all better than the newcomers he coached last summer.

As a result, Walton is as optimistic about the receivers as he has been in two years. The Redskins don't have any Lynn Swanns or John Stallworths, but what once was a glaring weakness is now much less of a concern.

Veterans Ricky Thompson and John McDaniel, the only holdovers from last season, have noticed the change, too. That is one reason, as Walton put it, "They came into camp in pretty fine condition.

"There is no question that things have really changed in a year," Thompson said. "There is much more competition. There is more speed, more size, more everything.

"I'm trying not to approach this any differently than I have my other four years (in pro football). You size everyone else up, sure, and you compare them to what you can do. But there isn't that much time around here to do much thinking about anything but your job."

Thompson (22 catches for 366 yards), McDaniel (25 for 357) and Danny Buggs (46 for 631) were the only wide receivers the Redskins carried all of last season, although a free agent occasionally was brought in for a week or two. Buggs was traded to Tampa Bay between seasons for cornerback Jeris White, who has yet to report because of contract problems.

But even if White never shows up, there has been little talk here about the deal backfiring. That is because the team now can get along without Buggs.

"We were really hurting last year at this time," Walton said. "I remember we were having trouble getting passes to our wide receivers and everyone was saying, 'When are they going to catch the ball?'

"This is definitely the one area on offense where we have had the most improvement. We still aren't going to force things early in camp, but with the people we have, we should be able to have a lot more versatility than before."

Monk, of course, automatically makes the position better. He adds size, speed and running ability after a catch, although he certainly isn't nearly as polished or as efficient as Walton wants him to be. But just having his raw talent available -- even if he fails to live up to all of his advance billings -- gives quarterback Joe Theismann another weapon.

Beyond Monk, there is room for only three more receivers, unless Walton juggles the numbers among the specialty positions to make room for more. But that is a longshot. So the coaches face some delicate decisions before the season opener, and it is likely that at least one experienced player will not be kept.

That is because the unheralded McKinney is playing almost as well as Monk. He constantly has attracted the attention of both Walton and Coach Jack Pardee.

McKinney (6 feet, 200 pounds) was a four-year letterman at South Carolina, where he caught 68 passes for a run-oriented offense. His lack of speed -- he's the slowest receiver in camp -- caused teams to shy from him in the draft, but the Redskins were impressed by his strength and good hands.

"It was a good draft year for receivers," said scout Charley Taylor, the former great receiver, "so teams will go with a guy who has quickness. But Zion has exceptional hands and he's fast enough to escape trouble and get where he's supposed to go. And he'll mix it up out there. He can block, which is not always the case with receivers. It's something the way he's adapted to camp."

Walton says McKinney is "fast with a uniform on."

"I think I've got the size and the strength they are looking for," McKinney said. "I can hold up under a long season, going over the middle. I was disappointed I didn't get drafted, I thought I might go in the middle rounds. But coming from run-oriented scholl, my number didn't come up all that much."

Both Dallas and Pittsburgh expressed interest in signing him after the draft, but McKinney had studied Washington's problems at receiver. "When they drafted Art," he said, "I sank a little. But when they traded away Buggs, I got excited again. I wanted to go with the team where I thought I had the best shot."

McKinney is being used at flanker, competing against Thompson (6 feet, 177), who makes up for his lack of size with fine pass routes, good concentration and reliable hands. "He knows the system," Walton said, "and that's important. He's not as strong or as fast as you'd like, but he has great discipline. You like smart people around like him."

Harrison and Owens also are at flanker. Although both have been slowed by thigh pulls and have fallen off the last week, each has characteristics Walton likes.

Owens (6-1, 204) started in the playoffs last year for Tampa Bay, but Coach John McKay became disenchanted with all of his receivers in the off-season. After three years of 30-plus catches, Owens dropped to 20 last year but still is the bucs' all-time leading receiver.

"A strong receiver," walton said. "He's impressive with his knowledge of defenses. He read them so well. And he's reliable." Added Taylor: "He runs a fine pattern and he's quick enough to give us some speed at that spot."

Harrison (6 feet, 170) also has size problems but has surprised the Redskins with his downfield speed. "He's a deep threat," Walton said, something the club has lacked. General Manager Bobby Beathard long has liked him and when he became available on the waiver list this spring through a league technicality, Washington claimed him from the 49ers.

Monk and McDaniel are the leading split ends. Walton always has admired McDaniel's intensity and his ability to turn a big play. Still, he cut him during camp last year when McDaniel (6-1, 197 suddenly couldn't catch a pass. He was brought back and had a good season.

"He came into this camp in better shape," Walton said. "He's having a good camp. He too knows what we want and that's a plus. I know what he will do, I can rely on him. He's a pro receiver and he can play for a while in this league."

McCullough and Stapler are trailing in the receiver derby and will need to stand out early in the exhibition games to remain. Thompson, too, will have to get off quickly to hold off McKinney and Owens.

"It's going to come down to whether we want to go with youth or experience," Walton said. "Do we want to build for the future or are the young guys still a year away, too far away to give us something now?

"When the final cutdown arrives, I'm just hoping the preseason games have given us a clearer picture than we have right now."

Defensive tackle Paul Smith, picked up from Denver last year, has been elected by the Bronco fans to the club's 20-year team. Smith played 11 years in Denver and was twice a Pro Bowl participant. The 20-year team will be honored Friday night but Smith won't be in attendance. "I just didn't want to travel to Denver and then back again for a game Saturday in Baltimore," he said. "But it's still something I'm real proud of. Guess they haven't forgotten me."