The Washington Redskins' coaches say they never were displeased with rookie cornerback Vernon Dean's play. But they've never been as pleased with him as they are now.

Dean is starting at right cornerback, a position occupied for seven years by Joe Lavender, now 33 years old, slowed by a right hamstring pull and relegated to passing situations.

Dean's rise could mean the end of Lavender's career as a starter. But Coach Joe Gibbs and defensive coordinator Richie Petitbon each said yesterday that Lavender, when his injury heals completely, will have a chance to regain his starting spot. Dean was the team's top selection in this year's National Football League draft.

"Right now, we're very pleased with the way Vernon has been performing," Gibbs said after a two-hour Thanksgiving Day workout. "He wasn't a disappointment before. But he's more aggressive now, he's going after people.

"And we want to keep Joe (Lavender) as a nickel back right now so he can break in (from the injury) slowly," Gibbs said.

Lavender began his 10th season in the NFL as a starter with Pro Bowl credentials. But the hamstring, injured in the season opener at Philadelphia, cleared the way for Dean to start.

"We didn't plan on Vernon starting so soon," said Petitbon. "We wanted him as our nickel back. But as a starter, he's been up to it. He's given us excellent games (against Tampa Bay and the Giants). Vernon is confident now and he knows the defenses better."

Lavender declined yesterday to talk about his injury, his future or his role as a nickel back.

Petitbon was asked if Lavender appears worried about his future and if Lavender can regain his old form.

"I'm sure that's got to be on Joe's mind," the coach replied. "But when he gets over the injury, he'll be better able to assess his abilities. If Joe were 100 percent, he'd probably still be starting.

"We don't want to play him a lot right now," Petitbon said. "If he'd play a lot, he'd be more susceptible to reinjuring the hamstring. Joe was in for 18 plays last week against the Giants; that way, he doesn't get tired and his stamina isn't a problem."

Even though Lavender didn't talk publicly, he is talking regularly to Dean, both of whom played at San Diego State.

"Joe talks to me all the time during games and practices," Dean said. "He tells me how to play certain receivers since he knows them all, and he corrects any mistakes he sees me make. He's said the first thing to do is not get beat, second is to be aggressive.

"I know I've got some big shoes to fill," Dean said. "I try not to think about playing in place of somebody so great. I never could have predicted this would have happened, but it helps that he helps me out."

Gibbs said that running back Joe Washington could play a lot more this week against Philadelphia at RFK Stadium. "He can help take some of the pressure off John (Riggins)," Gibbs said.