Charles Mann has begun his eighth season with three terrific game-day performances, a development that hasn't raised many eyebrows since he has been to three straight Pro Bowls, and at age 29 finally is no longer the upcoming pup of the Washington Redskins' defense.

He looks around and sees that Neal Olkewicz is gone, Dave Butz is gone and Dexter Manley, Rich Milot and Mel Kaufman as well. He lines up beside quick young kids named Tracy Rocker and Fred Stokes. A rookie, Andre Collins, likely will start behind him at outside linebacker.

Mann now finds himself one of three anchors -- along with Darrell Green and Wilber Marshall -- for a defense that thinks a date in Super Bowl XXV is a realistic goal.

"I'm starting to feel my age a little bit," he said. "I remember how Dave Butz felt when Mark Moseley was no longer around. I didn't feel anything for him then, but I do now."

This should be a special season in other ways, because for the first time in his career there's no Manley lining up opposite him.

There won't be Dexter holding a daily news conference, won't be Dexter always on the 11 o'clock news.

The irony is that for many of their years together, Mann was a better, stronger and more consistent player, especially in the Super Bowl season of 1987. But people knew Manley better because Manley wanted to be known.

Now with Manley apparently having played his last game for the Redskins, with Butz and others gone, Mann realizes he'll be more visible and even more famous in 1990.

"No, it's just that the press is starting to know me," he said. "I think my peers have known me a long time and that's the most satisfying part of this game."

Yet the subject of Dexter Manley is a sensitive one for Charles Mann. Manley made himself a star because he talked a lot, smiled a lot and made himself available. He also had great natural ability and was a tremendous player for a few seasons. But a lot of the Redskins thought he never worked hard to improve himself and that by the time he was suspended last season he was far from great.

Mann took a different route. He worked hard, never stroked the media much and played in relative obscurity until the past couple of years. He was less known and probably made less money because of that.

Mann says he isn't bitter, but there were indications he perhaps once was. He says he's a forgiving person, doesn't hold grudges. Yet as he talks about Manley, he draws distinctions.

Manley fought what was at times an open battle with substance abuse and illiteracy. He did charity work and drew attention everywhere. Mann did, and does, things more quietly, working for the March of Dimes, Special Olympics, Children's Hospital, and Metropolitan Boys and Girls Clubs.

"Listen, I never felt I was in his shadow," Mann said. "We were two different people with two different attitudes and lifestyles. His goals weren't my goals. My peers respect me. They may not see me on television or whatever, but they watch the films and know who I am."

He gets warmed up and begins to talk about the person he wants to be, this 1983 third-round draft choice from Nevada-Reno who has developed into an enormous player.

"I told my agent to get me involved in things where I could make a difference," he said. "I want to be identified with churches, with kids . . . be a positive role model. I talk to kids and then I stay around and let them get to know me. I want them to get used to seeing me and to hear what I've got to say."

His is a message of religion and of the virtues of hard work. He's a good example for that because in his going-on-eight seasons he has been a player capable of dominating a game. He spent much of the first half of a 31-13 victory over Cleveland last weekend in the Browns' backfield and had similar days against the Steelers and Falcons.

Mann cautions against getting overexcited in August: "Teams prepare so they'll be able to judge their personnel, not stop Charles Mann. . . . I'm not playing that well yet. I want to be consistent and I haven't gotten to that point. If I can't make the play, I want to be in the right position, and I've been out of position a few times {like} when Bernie {Kosar of the Browns} ran for a first down one time."

In the 1989 season, he had a career-high 93 tackles and 31 quarterback hurries. He led the Redskins with 10 sacks and his career total of 60 is second on their all-time list to Manley's 97 1/3.

Mann said he began 1990 training camp with fresher legs, a result of a different offseason regimen he hopes will have him fresher in December. Instead of taking a month off, he took almost two months off and returned to his second home in Orlando, Fla., to vacation with his wife and daughter.

He didn't begin the summer weight work until almost April and says: "I came in with a fresher attitude, more focused. I didn't get as much weight work, but I feel I did more quality work. I'm stronger. . . . You have to put 10-10 1/2 months a year into this game and I felt I needed a full two months off."

So he has come in to find a defensive line he left in transition last season still in transition. Stokes and Rocker, who played so well down the stretch, have been joined by another youngster, Tim Johnson, acquired this month from the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"These guys have a bright future," Mann said. "This is going to be a good group. It takes more than one person. You do have to have a guy to make big plays and I've said before I want to be that guy. {Like} when it's third and 10 on the 20 at the end of the game. I think if there's something to the leadership stuff, it comes that you're looked to to be that guy. . . . You see yourself doing it, then you do it."