A little more than two weeks ago, Ricky Sanders, the Washington Redskins' No. 3 wide receiver, got a few choice words of wisdom from Dan Henning, the offensive assistant coach who oversees the team's receivers.

"Get your act together and begin competing for one of the top two wide receiver spots on this team," is the way Sanders and Henning generally recollect the coach-to-player message.

There are four, maybe five, openings for wide receivers on the Redskins roster this fall. Two are locked up by Art Monk and Gary Clark. The third belongs to Sanders, according to Coach Joe Gibbs and Henning. The fourth and possible fifth spot are up for grabs among a handful of Smurf-sized players who not only catch passes, but also field punts and kickoffs, play on kick coverage units and probably do windows.

"Anything to make the team," said Clarence Verdin, a contender for one of the last two slots.

At face value, it looks like there is certainty at the top and chaos at the bottom at this position. One might ask how Monk and Clark, both Pro Bowl participants seven months ago, could be challenged. They are the starters, there is no doubt. But Sanders, Jim Kelly's favorite receiver with Houston in the U.S. Football League, has shown glimpses of brilliance that have piqued the Redskins' curiosity and have not let them forget he is just below the top rung on the team's depth chart.

Meanwhile, among the seemingly interchangeable Smurfs -- Verdin, Eric Yarber, Derek Holloway and rookies Ted Wilson and Leonard Harris -- there are signs that some may have a better chance than others when the final roster is picked Sept. 7.

All things being equal, the coaches and players say whoever pulls his weight on special teams will end up making the team. Special teams coach Chuck Banker said yesterday at Redskin Park that Sanders and Yarber are likely to be his punt returners for the regular season. No decisions have been made yet, he cautioned, but said, "Eric looks like he's capable. He can be the guy."

In the regular season and playoffs last season, Yarber, who is only 5 feet 8 and 160 pounds, returned 17 punts for an 11.3-yard average.

Wilson and Harris have returned punts this preseason and will handle punts and kickoffs Saturday night in Tampa, Banker said.

Verdin played on special teams last season for the Redskins, returning his first kickoff 29 yards against the New York Giants. He might return a punt or two Saturday night. Holloway returned three kickoffs for 44 total yards early last season before being taken off that duty.

"After the third or fourth game, they told me they didn't particularly like the way I returned," Holloway said. "I haven't been on special teams since then. But I can play them."

"That fourth receiver is going to have to return punts, kickoffs and run down on kickoff coverage because his playing time at receiver will be limited," said Verdin. "He's got two all-pros in front of him. It's not like that fourth receiver is going to play."

Verdin, nicknamed "CNN" because he seemingly talks 24 hours a day, called the job "two spots in one. That one man is going to have to play all the special teams and backup receiver. It's weird. It's a trip. But I want that job."

Sanders, Verdin and Holloway came to the Redskins from the USFL last summer. They stuck around because they got injured. Each played at some point last season after coming off injured reserve. This summer, Gibbs said he was eager to see them stay healthy. They have, but, in so doing, they realize they are driving teammates and friends right out of jobs.

"To have five or six guys stacked behind one another, it's going to be interesting to see what happens," Holloway said. "Not everyone is going to be able to play. They brought us in last year. I don't know if they foresaw this situation. We're happy to be here, but it's inevitable someone's going to be left out."

Henning said all the receivers on the bubble are "legitimate NFL players."

He said, "I think we have guys with the capability of playing in this league. This is a solid receiving corps, led by two players picked as the best in the conference. That's not bad."

Henning said special teams considerations "will definitely help" the coaches make their decisions on who to keep and who to cut.

"But the problem is when you go after top receivers; they have been starters all their lives and have not played much on special teams," he said. "Look at Derek Holloway. He certainly has the ability to play special teams, but he just hasn't done much of it {in the pros}."

The five players who aren't certain of their fate realize Monk, Clark and Sanders are several steps ahead. Sanders finds himself in a safe spot, trying to improve his position, not win a job.

"I was lackadaisical in practice early in camp," Sanders said yesterday. "I have to be more intense, to be harder on myself. After Coach Henning talked to me, I decided I needed to change. It's a good situation for me, but I can't just sit back. There are great receivers here. It's up to me to challenge them."

Verdin is talking a somewhat different game.

"It's a tough situation," he said. "We've got a lot of great receivers. I know I can play. I know they know I can play. If it's not here, it will be somewhere else. But I want it to be here."