Running back Joe Washington said yesterday his knee, which underwent surgery in September, feels strong enough for him to play Sunday in the Redskins' poststrike opening game against the New York Giants.

And Coach Joe Gibbs said rookie cornerback Vernon Dean probably will start in place of veteran Joe Lavender, although Lavender has recovered from a hamstring pull that limited his play in mid-September.

"I definitely will suit up for the game," Washington said. "Right now, I feel like I can play. There has been no swelling, well, maybe just a tad, but that is to be expected. If the swelling started restricting my movement, then that would be different."

Washington said after two days of practice, "I don't feel any negatives to keep me from playing. But it's hard for me to tell how I look. That's for the coaches to say."

Gibbs said Washington looks fine.

"He's still running well," Gibbs said. "But it's still up to him to decide what he wants to do."

Washington and fullback Wilbur Jackson were on inseason injured reserve when the strike began. The league ruled yesterday that any players on that list can play immediately. But Gibbs said that if Washington is activated, it is likely Jackson will not dress Sunday.

"I probably won't activate both of them," Gibbs said. "Wilbur hasn't had that much work even before the strike and he missed Wednesday's practice. That makes a difference if he had been in there."

Washington worked a regular shift in yesterday's practice, alternating with John Riggins. Jackson, who returned from his Alabama home to Redskin Park Wednesday, did not run with the regular offense.

Meanwhile, the Redskins have decided to stay with Dean as a starter after his performance against Tampa Bay, the last game before the strike. Lavender, who had been struggling, missed that game because of the hamstring pull.

"Vernon had an excellent game (against Tampa Bay)," said Richie Petitbon, defensive coordinator. "We were very pleased with him. But Joe is moving much better now than he has been. That's encouraging. The rest has helped him."

Lavender apparently is doing well enough to be the Redskins' nickel back against the Giants. Before he was a starter, Dean was the nickel back.

"I wasn't thinking about starting (when we came back)," said Dean, the Redskins' No. 2 draft choice. "It's satisfying but I was just glad to be back."