The Washington Redskins had good reasons for selecting four potential defensive backs and as many as nine possible special-teams players in Tuesday's National Football League draft.

Special-teams captain Pete Cronan, 30, said yesterday he had been told by Coach Joe Gibbs that "there might not be a position for you on the ball club this year."

There also may be positional moves in the defensive backfield, Gibbs speculated.

The Redskins, concerned that the NFL may go back to a 45-man roster from the present 49-player limit, are evaluating the situations of some of their older players, trying to determine what, if any, future they may have with the club. Cronan's doesn't appear to be good.

"The team's in transition," said Cronan, who is coming to the Redskins' minicamp the week of May 13. "Coach Gibbs told me I've got to come to camp and prove myself; there will be no guaranteed position.

"They're a little concerned about my running ability after last year (he missed 13 games with a broken leg). Hey, if it's not in the cards, that's okay. It's unfortunate, but these things happen. They have new guys who are head and shoulders above me."

Gibbs' hour-long meeting with Cronan, combined with a noted emphasis on special-teams players in the draft, presents the kicking and kick-returning units, long a strength in Washington, in a new, brighter spotlight.

"We kind of got spoiled because we had such a great, aggressive group when we started building the first and second year into the Super Bowl," Gibbs said yesterday at Redskin Park.

Last season, when a rash of injuries hit the Redskins, Gibbs said the long-range goals of the special teams were sacrificed for the short-term gain at certain positions.

"Sometimes," he said, "you lose track of the special teams.

"At the end of the year, on some of our coverage teams, I would be looking for some more physical guys than what we had."

The Redskins also were looking for defensive backs in the draft, and got their favorite, they said, in 5-foot-11 cornerback Tory Nixon of San Diego State, the 33rd player taken in the draft. The acquisition of Nixon, plus the possibility that fifth-round selection Raphel Cherry might play safety as well as running back, present the Redskins with all sorts of options.

The "key" to the defensive backfield, Gibbs said, is strong safety Tony Peters.

"A healthy Tony Peters changes a lot of things," he said. Peters missed eight 1984 games with a pulled stomach muscle.

If Peters regains his Pro Bowl form of three years ago, Gibbs said, Ken Coffey, his replacement last season, could be "flexible." That could mean a move to free safety, where Curtis Jordan started after Mark Murphy injured his knee in the second game of the season and missed nine games.

Murphy, a Pro Bowl selection in 1983 when he led the NFL with nine interceptions, never regained his starting spot from Jordan. He spent most of his time on special teams during the latter part of the season.

Nixon, who arrived at Redskin Park in a charcoal pin-stripe suit and professing an interest in a stockbroker's career, is not expected to play safety, although he played the position briefly during his junior year of college.

"I suspect that competition is probably the best thing for the team," he said. "They might just want me to be a nickel back. I don't know."

Nixon's presence may free left corner Darrell Green to return kicks, a luxury turned possible necessity if the NFL cuts roster sizes.

In the draft, Gibbs said he wanted "tough, hard-nosed guys."

Little did he know that Nixon personified the image the last time he played against Cherry, who set 29 records at quarterback for the University of Hawaii.

Their teams, both members of the Western Athletic Conference, played in Hawaii last fall. As Cherry scrambled toward the sideline near the end of the game, Nixon came up from his left cornerback spot.

As he crossed the sideline, Cherry said, Nixon pushed him further out of bounds. So Cherry swung his arm at him.

"We had a couple words," Cherry said.

Yesterday afternoon, reunited at Redskin Park, they had a few more.

"We were laughing about it upstairs," Nixon said. "Now we're teammates. We'll be friends."

Even before the Redskins drafted 12 players Tuesday, they felt they had a successful draft with the acquisition of running back George Rogers for their first-round pick. They felt so good about the running back spot, in fact, that they traded Joe Washington, their third-down back, to Atlanta, to obtain an earlier second-round selection and get Nixon.

Washington, a four-year veteran with the Redskins, was not returning calls as of early evening.

But Gibbs said he feels "pretty good about the running back situation," adding, "the only bridge we've burned is Joe Washington."

The Redskins apparently will rely on second-year man Keith Griffin much more than before, Gibbs said, while special-teams and short-yardage performer Otis Wonsley and receiving back Jeff Moore remain in the picture. Seventh-round draft pick Lionel Vital of Nicholls State and Cherry also might figure prominently in the backfield come training camp.

"To me," Gibbs said, "Keith has a chance to blossom as a real bona fide running back."

Griffin's only apparent weakness, Gibbs said, is his propensity to fumble. "I'm just convinced we've got to find a solution to his fumbling the football," Gibbs said.

The Redskins wanted to draft an offensive lineman early, but instead took two late -- Mitch Geier of Troy State in the ninth round and Raleigh McKenzie of Tennessee in the 11th.

Once the big names were gone, the Redskins figured there was no reason to rush. They added depth in March by signing 6-foot-4, 273-pound tackle Mike McClearn, formerly of the U.S. Football League's Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars.

Yet, while center Jeff Bostic's right knee (extensive damage to ligaments in midseason) is improving, he is not expected to be back at full strength until late in training camp, Gibbs said.