Possibly, Mike Nelms admits, he is too close to the matter to evaluate it objectively. But when he looks around the NFL he sees kickers kicking, blockers blocking, defenders defending, receivers receiving, runners running. Only the kick returners also are expected to be useful somewhere else.

"It's a skill position," he argues. "Lots of work's involved in being able to do it right. But it's the only position I can think of where you're expected to do something more. People look at kick returners differently, maybe because we see action so infrequently. But they have designated hitters in baseball, don't they?"

Nelms is a designated hittee. Lots of us consider what he has done well enough to make the Pro Bowl three straight years a kill position rather than a skill position. Would anyone with a deck of 52 keep his eyes sky-high on a floating football with, say, Dexter Manley boring in on his throat?

Sure, when you've grown up on run-through.

That was a kids' game back in Fort Worth, the one that introduced sixth-grader Nelms to the perils and pearly possibilities of carrying a pig's bladder in rush-hour football traffic.

Only there were no escorts in run-through. No wedges; no free-lance blockers. And no pads.

In run-through, a youngster got thrown a football and would try to carry it the length of a neighbor's back yard through five or six of his chums. One out of bounds might be a hedge; another a driveway. Either way, there was no escape, and a fellow either learned to be elusive or took a sudden interest in trombones.

"If there were more than six guys defending," Nelms said, "they had to stay on one knee. So you had some sort of chance. Only way to work it was to get as close as possible to each one and make a move.

"That's the fault of lots of pro returners. They move too soon, give a tackler a chance to recover. But the first time I ever got the wind knocked out of me was in run-through.

"And they were on their knees."

Good scout Nelms is going along with the Redskins' desire to make him a part-time wide receiver in addition to being the full-time punt and kick returner. He rather enjoys it; the Redskins are hopeful this experiment will be more productive than his three-year go at defensive back.

Coach Joe Gibbs considers spreading Nelms as thin as possible both flattering and necessary. Gibbs and every other NFL coach must make do with four fewer players this season, the rosters having been cut from 49 to 45 players by owners merely making nearly $14 million each a year just from television.

So the coaches must squeeze every ounce of ability out of every player. And Nelms, who can play defensive back in a major emergency and wide receiver in an ordinary one, in addition to carrying their fate up and down the field on returns, is especially valuable.

Nelms is a wonderful athlete who scaled the 12-foot rope-climb barrier in Superstars without using the rope. He also hurdled the four-foot high jump bar. But this wide-receiver switch had him baffled for a while.

"Here I hadn't done anything close to it since the 12th grade," Nelms said, "and all of a sudden I'm playing wide receiver in the NFL. Pretty big stuff."

He was close to overwhelmed during spring minicamp. Routes and distances, adjustments depending on whether the defense was zone or man, or which way the zone slid. All that and looking the ball into his hands with someone like Vernon Dean clawing at them.

"At first on the patterns," Nelms said, "I'd almost count the yards (to be run before making the cut). Now I have a sort of time clock in my head for when I'm at 12 yards or 15 yards. Rusty going for a while; now I can see light at the end of the tunnel."

Gibbs is anxious to see Nelms during the exhibition season.

Redskins fans are intrigued by the idea of Nelms being thrown a quick-screen, that being one of the pass plays that would let him react most like a punt returner. Quick cuts and power. Instinct born of hundreds of run-throughs.

And, yes, because even a scribe is bright enough to think that the Redskins are working on how to counter the counter.

Knowing Nelms is likely to be thrown such a pass, cornerbacks will play him chin-strap tight. So . . .

"I've found it awkward dipping down as low as you have to for strength in warding a guy off," he said. "Standing too high makes you an easy target. So I watch guys like Art (Monk) and Charlie (Brown). No sense looking at Virgil (Seay) and Alvin (Garrett). They're already low."

Because the NFL is close to the ultimate in athletic competition, the Redskins have drafted a gifted returner (Darrell Green) in case Nelms slips. Their hard side recalls that although Nelms was second in the league in kickoff average (24.2 yards) in '82 and averaged nearly eight yards with 32 punt returns he produced no touchdowns.

An off year, Nelms suggests, because it was an even year.

Nelms has this progression: 2-0-2-0. His last season in Canada, he returned two kicks for touchdowns, his first near in Washington none. His second year with the Redskins he mustered two touchdowns; last year none. So he's due for two.

His goal is seven.

"I set 'em high," he said. "You have a chance so many times that seven doesn't seem unrealistic. You see how close you've come so often. But the amount of kicks to the amount of returns for touchdowns make the odds close to out of sight."

For a kick returner, move after dangerous move often is necessary to reach the end zone; for a wide receiver, one slick juke usually does it. Nelms likes that. It frustrates him no end to hear talk about the human body having just so many hard-lick returns in it.

"Maybe history documents that," he said. "But I don't think it's true for me. Anyway, this is the first time I've had to deal with competition. I've been the kick returner since I got here. That's unusual in the NFL. Having Darrell here is normal."