Defensive tackle Kent Wells had been one of the early stars of training camp for the Washington Redskins. He had started the first two preseason games, looked like a sixth-round steal and a few weeks ago seemed a lock to make the team.

That was before holdout Darryl Grant reported to camp and before Tim Johnson was acquired from Pittsburgh. That was also before Wells got shoved around in a couple of preseason performances, and yesterday when the Redskins announced their first big roster cut, Wells was sent packing.

His release was the only surprising news on a day when the Redskins cut 12 players and prepared to place three more -- tackle Mark May, cornerback A.J. Johnson and defensive lineman Jumpy Geathers -- on the physically unable to perform list.

They weren't finished. Five more moves will be announced by 4 o'clock this afternoon as NFL teams are required to get down to 60 players today and 47 by next Monday.

Decisions apparently have been made on the other five moves. The Redskins weren't announcing them, but running back Reggie Dupard, offensive linemen Dave Harbour and Tim Moxley and linebackers Chris Dunn and Jon Leverenz appeared to be in trouble.

But perhaps the most significant development of the day was that cornerback Brian Davis, who has been sidelined since the beginning of camp with a torn or strained muscle in his right leg, returned to practice.

Davis held up through a sweltering 90-minute session, will go again today and said he expected to play in Friday's preseason finale against the Los Angeles Rams at RFK Stadium.

The Redskins were crossing their fingers and holding their breaths because if Davis's leg problems finally are over, their secondary will look significantly different.

"We need him," defensive backs coach Emmitt Thomas said. "He's big, strong and quick, and he adds a lot to our team. You know what you've got with him."

Davis could give the Redskins a boost in an area in which they desperately need help. Darrell Green and Martin Mayhew are solid starting cornerbacks, but on passing downs, situations in which teams sometimes use four cornerbacks, the Redskins are vulnerable.

Veteran Wayne Davis has been a solid performer, but with A.J. Johnson out, veteran free agent Alvoid Mays has filled in at the other spot.

The Redskins have spent much of this camp looking for a cornerback, but if Brian Davis holds up, their needs are less pressing. He has been bothered by the same leg injury three of his four seasons, and when he was hurt in camp, visited a St. Louis specialist for a second opinion.

He was told that scar tissue had developed from other injuries and that it was susceptible to reinjury. He underwent therapy to reduce the scar tissue and Davis hopes he's back for good.

"It gets the Siskel and Ebert thumbs up," Davis said after practice yesterday. "A rare thumbs up."

Thomas said that Davis was brought along slowly, but that if he makes it through a week of practice, he'll play against the Rams.

"He's rusty," Thomas said. "We didn't stretch him out. Right now, we want to see if his legs hold up in practice. We'll add a little more as the week goes on and try to spot play him Friday. He needs to play. We've got to make a decision. We're coming down to 47 {the final roster cuts} and he hasn't played yet. We stressed that to him."

Davis started the first nine games last season before Mayhew took over the job.

"He got down on himself and we thought a change in roles would be good for him," Thomas said. "It did because when he was used in those nickel situations he played as well as any defensive back we had. We don't have to make a decision on Brian. We know what he can do if he's healthy."

Meanwhile, the Redskins said their cuts, which leave them with only seven rookies (all draft choices), were a reflection of the NFL's new rules. Since the developmental squads were killed this summer, teams have said some young players would lose jobs.

Wells apparently was one of those.

"He's a guy you'd like to keep around and work with," Redskins General Manager Charley Casserly said. "But it's just not possible. He got off to a good start, but really leveled off. Sometimes you have to consider who he's working against and we just decided he won't be as good as our first six."

Wells got a rare chance to start twice because veterans Markus Koch and Darryl Grant held out, Fred Stokes got hurt and Johnson hadn't been acquired. When he began going against NFL-caliber players everyday, he wasn't so impressive.

"We liked him," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "We gave him a great shot. We just felt we had some others here who would add something else."

The Redskins have only one more decision in the defensive line and Plan B signees Milford Hodge and Pat Swoopes and veteran free agent Alonzo Mitz are competing for that job.

Yesterday, only one other draft choice was cut -- 10th-round defensive tackle Thomas Rayam of Alabama. Plan B linebacker Kevin McArthur was also cut as was receiver Chris Armstrong, who was brought in after playing with the Washington Commandos of the Arena league. Two other players with pro experience -- cornerback Roy Bennett and Canadian Football League veteran defensive end Romel Andres -- were cut.

Everyone else was a rookie free agent -- defensive tackle Tim Adams, defensive back Dan Crossman, center Byron Forsythe and wide receivers Marcus Cherry, Paul Smith and Percy Waddle.

None of today's cuts will surprise anyone. May, A.J. Johnson and Geathers are all several weeks or more away from being able to play. When a player is placed on the physically unable to perform list, he can't practice for the first four weeks of the regular season.

He then can be brought back to practice the remainder of the year. If a player is activated by the fifth or sixth week, teams are charged with one of their five moves.

Johnson underwent reconstructive knee surgery in May and is probably lost for the season. However, the Redskins believe May and Geathers will play this season.

Geathers has been hitting a blocking sled and will return to practice sometime next month.