There are approximately 280 would-be National Football League players under the threat of being waived in Tuesday afternoon's mandatory roster cutdown from 60 to 50, but one can't help but wonder if the paring process for other teams has taken on the same sense of drama that it has for the Redskins.

While Washington's coaches huddled at Redskin Park over the weekend to determine guidelines for their decisions, the players who are precariously perched astride the bubble could only sit and wait.

For some -- such as kicker Tony Zendejas and quarterback Babe Laufenberg -- the anxiety has been widely chronicled. For others, the struggle to stay on the roster long enough to travel to Tampa Bay for the fourth and final preseason game Friday night isn't as celebrated, but it's just as nerve-racking.

"That's it right there, it all comes down to Tuesday," said defensive back J.C. Pearson. "You can't sit around and think about it so you try and put it out of your mind, but it always comes up again anyway."

That Pearson, a free agent from the University of Washington, is one of five first-year players still competing for a spot in the defensive backfield is a sign of the help needed in the secondary.

At wide receiver, the Redskins already have three top players in Art Monk, Calvin Muhammad and Charlie Brown, but Washington's plans are being complicated by another free agent.

That would be Joe Phillips, a 5-foot-9, 188-pounder from Kentucky who has caught nine passes for 90 yards in the Redskins' three preseason games. In Friday's 37-36 victory over New England, he caught four passes for 43 yards. Two of the receptions and 40 of the yards came during the team's last-minute, 80-yard game-winning drive.

But if the team's brain trust is more than a bit surprised that Phillips has emerged as the team's leading receiver so far, it doesn't match the sense of satisfaction he is feeling.

"I didn't expect it to work out the way it has so far," he said yesterday. "I started camp basically just listening and watching the other guys and I guess some things have caught on."

According to Phillips, his original plan was to catch the attention of Redskins coaches with his hitting. "I thought the Redskins would be the best shot that I could get (coming out of school)," he said. "I thought I could fit in with them because they like tough, hard-nosed guys, especially on special teams. I feel like I'm one of them, and I was just hoping to show them that."

Instead, it's been Phillips' hands that have been most impressive, which also is a surprise. Most of his career at Kentucky was spent under Jerry Claiborne, the former Maryland coach whose idea of passing the football generally is confined to a pitchback made in the triple option.

"There was a lot more blocking than catching there. We were pretty much a nonpassing team," said Phillips, who nevertheless had 75 career receptions for 935 yards and nine touchdowns at Kentucky. "I'm an ex-quarterback, though, so I'm used to handling the ball. I may not be as fast as the other guys here, but I'm not worried about my hands."

However, like everyone else this side of Joe Theismann and John Riggins, Phillips does find himself concerned with the events of the next couple of days. "It's really do or die for me, that's how I look at it now," he said.

"People talk more about them (Zendejas and Laufenberg), but it's not much different for me. Kickers and quarterbacks are two of the most important positions on the team, though; you usually don't hear about third-string wide receivers."

As is often true, the newcomers competing for jobs live in close proximity to each other. Defensive back Pearson, for example, is rooming with Kevin Williams, another of the five rookie defenders.

Williams said he and Pearson talk football in general but not about the specifics of their situation because "that's just too sensitive an area." Phillips, though, said that he's found a soulmate in fellow receiver Gary Clark, the player he'll most likely have to beat out to remain a Redskin.

Phillips' position may have improved slightly when Clark suffered a strained knee in the victory over the Patriots. Clark's injury appears to be milder than originally diagnosed and he might be available for Friday's game at Tampa Bay. However, if the Redskins were forced to place the former USFL player (who scored on a 75-yard catch and run against New England) on the injured reserve list, it possibly would free a roster spot, at least temporarily, for Phillips.

However, Phillips doesn't want his success to come at the expense of another. "I want Gary to be healthy. Besides, it didn't look like his knee was hurting him too much on that long run . . . I was just happy we went ahead in the game. If you're just sitting and wishing for a big break, when it comes you might not be ready for it. You have to take advantage of whatever chance you get.

"Gary and I talk about it a lot. I say he'll make the team and he says the opposite, that I will," Phillips said. "No matter which one they keep I think they'll be getting a little something extra. Gary's got a lot of speed and I think I'm tough, that might be a new dimension for the receivers."

General Manager Bobby Beathard said the Redskins gave up a fourth-round draft choice in 1986 for offensive tackle Dan McQuaid, acquired from the Rams on Saturday.

Also, according to a Redskins spokesman, safety Tony Peters and wide receiver Charlie Brown, unable to play against the Patriots because of hamstring injuries, are being listed as "day to day." Among other injured players being treated in the aftermath of victory are offensive lineman Joe Jacoby (sore hip) and defensive end Dexter Manley (sore shoulder).