After surviving two major football injuries, a car wreck and the collapse of a college football program, Vernon Dean figures his timing has to improve.

As far as the Redskins are concerned, it has.

They need a young, aggressive cornerback who isn't leery of knocking heads with 230-pound running backs. Dean's strength is his aggressiveness, even though he weighs only 180 pounds.

Washington believes it has a cornerback who can contribute for years. Dean believes his roller-coaster football career is on the upswing.

The result is delight on both sides, although the Redskins are more vocal about it than Dean, the soft-spoken second-round choice from San Diego State who was the club's first selection in the last draft.

Defensive coordinator Richie Petitbon, who usually saves his compliments for veterans, calls Dean a great prospect.

"From what I've seen at minicamp and here (at training camp), he can't miss," Petitbon said. "Of course, he could fall flat on his face later, but I don't think so. He has what you want in a cornerback. He is smart and aggressive and mentally very tough. It doesn't really bother him to get beat. He comes back from it very well. And he's already well-schooled in man-to-man.

"He'll contribute right away. It's too early to say if he can start. He hasn't walked on water yet, but he'll be used, no question about it. You don't want to waste talent like his."

Dean is accustomed to football disappointments, so such praise does not change his low-key approach.

"I'm not coming in here thinking I'm a big draft choice," he said. "Once the draft is over and camp starts, we are all the same. I'm just another player. All the draft does is help you when you negotiate a contract.

"I've seen too many No. 1 picks get cut. They come in with a bad attitude and don't work and that's it. The approach I'm taking is to work hard all the time and do the best I can and see what happens."

One of the intriguing aspects of this camp will be the development of Dean's defensive role this season.

He is a logical choice as the fifth back in the Redskins' nickel defense. But with the team's new emphasis on aggressive defense, Dean could be a starter on early downs, when opponents are apt to try running plays, and come out on passing downs. He also could become a fulltime starter, dislodging Joe Lavender or Jeris White, the only veteran cornerbacks now that Lemar Parrish is in Buffalo.

"I can see him as a starter," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "He's the kind of guy we want for this defense. You have to be impressed with his mental toughness. In minicamp, he kept his mouth shut and never backed off from anyone. He's tough as they come. That's a plus for a cornerback. Their first duty is to cover well on passes, but if you can get one who also will knock heads, you are one step ahead. But he has athlete arrogance. He believes he belongs here."

Dean learned his aggressiveness from an older brother who played safety in high school at 5-foot-7 and 150 pounds. "Toughest guy I've ever seen," Dean said. "He never backed down from anyone. He told me that football is a physical game, and that's how you play it."

Dean also is motivated by various pitfalls he encountered en route to being drafted by the Redskins.

Despite a decent high school career, Dean was not recruited by any major colleges. After a good junior college career, he was on the verge of quitting football to get married before tiny United States International University persuaded him to play. Finally, when USIU dropped football, Dean got plenty of offers before selecting San Diego State. Two games into his first season, he broke his arm; earlier he had broken a wrist. He also was involved in a car crash with a truck in which he sustained facial cuts and needed 64 stitches.

But even a successful senior season at San Diego State didn't make Dean a first-round pick. Scouts said he didn't have enough acceleration and quickness, weaknesses the Redskins acknowledge. In fact, Washington wanted another cornerback, Bobby Wadkins of Southwest Texas State, but Watkins was drafted earlier in the second round by Detroit. No team official is complaining about having to settle for Dean, though.

Interestingly, the Redskins did not work out Dean before the draft, and Dean never thought they would select him. When the Redskins did pick him, Dean didn't know that Gibbs was head coach ("I thought he was still out here with the Chargers") or that Parrish was, at the time, a Redskin ("I didn't know what team he played for").

Dean has the faces in the right places now, and he knows what has made him valuable to the Redskins--his impressive hitting.

At the May minicamp, Dean began building a reputation for toughness by laying out rookie receiver Carl Powell with a mighty blow after Powell cut over the middle against him.

That's a standard play for Dean, who once shrugged off a broken hand in high school and didn't get it treated until four years later, when he was at San Diego State.

"I don't intentionally go after people and I'm not dirty," he said. "My college coaches told me I didn't come up and force fast enough, that I was soft. So I worked on it and now I never go at half-speed. I've had it rough all my football life and I hope things will go my way now.

"But I've already been beaten here three or four times in two days. That's one way to keep you from putting yourself on a pedestal. You wake up in a hurry."