Washington Redskins offensive lineman Raleigh McKenzie knows he will play Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers. He just doesn't know when, for how long or where.

McKenzie, an 11th-round draft choice out of Tennessee in 1985, has become a valuable asset on a team that prides itself on the ability, and versatility, of its linemen. On most other NFL teams, he would be a starter. On a team that kept 10 offensive linemen to start the season (two later were shifted to injured reserve), he must be content to wait.

"I am a patient guy and I am biding my time. Maybe I'll be the next Bobby Jones -- the best sixth man in the league," McKenzie said in reference to the former outstanding NBA reserve.

In the Redskins' 31-0 opening game victory over Phoenix, McKenzie played a good bit, replacing Russ Grimm at left guard. In games, he has played every position on the line except right tackle. He also has played tight end and blocking back.

Each of the past few years, preseason practice began with McKenzie seemingly ready to grab a starting position somewhere. He has started games in each of the previous four seasons, and in 1987, was the team's only offensive lineman who did not miss a play.

But this season, with spots open to competition on the right side, Ed Simmons emerged as the starter at tackle and Mark Schlereth won the spot at guard. Still, Coach Joe Gibbs insists McKenzie is not just another reserve.

"We consider him a starter -- he is a starter," said Gibbs. "But he may be more valuable as a reserve because we have great flexibility with him. At different times, he starts. He is one of our hardest workers, and I brag about him in front of the team all the time."

Despite the praise, unless something happens, McKenzie will not be introduced before a game with the other starters. And it is rare that a reserve ever gets postseason recognition.

"You always want to be in there at the beginning," said McKenzie. "But I am not the type to complain."

McKenzie, who is 6 feet 2 and 270 pounds, is back waiting for an opportunity. This time, his company on the sidelines includes former all-pro Joe Jacoby.

"When you are sitting behind guys who can't get it done, then it becomes frustrating," said McKenzie. "But that is not the case here. We have a lot of people who can play. Jacoby and I proved we could play. We started on the same {left} side in the Super Bowl."

Jim Hanifan, in his first year as Washington's offensive line coach, came to the Redskins with the philosophy of playing one set of linemen at specific positions. He has since been partially won over to the system of predecessor Joe Bugel, who wanted his linemen to know more than one position.

Even Bugel, however, would give his starters most of the work in practice. Hanifan finds room for McKenzie and Jacoby to spend considerable time with the other first stringers.

"With everybody getting in the game and playing, their adrenaline is always going," said Hanifan. "And with Rollo, there is no dropoff in ability whether he is playing guard or center."

If much of Washington's offensive strength comes from its line, then the line also holds an eventual future problem. Grimm and Jacoby are 31. Center Jeff Bostic is 32. The Redskins cannot count on all three indefinitely, although each has shown the ability to come back strong after suffering serious injuries.

The potential for any of them to break down is what makes McKenzie so valuable.

"I think Raleigh and the other {reserve linemen} understand the situation," said Washington Pro Bowl left tackle Jim Lachey. "Raleigh definitely has the ability to start on most teams, but with the Redskins, we do have more quality linemen than most teams have."

Although reserves like McKenzie give Washington the luxury of occasionally resting a lineman, not all want to take advantage of the situation.

"During the course of the ballgame, I like to stay in there because I feel I can wear my man down," said Lachey.

Unlike other reserves, McKenzie cannot stand on the sidelines studying the one player he must replace.

"I never know where I will go in," he said. "I go out in warm-ups always expecting to go in there early and I try to stay prepared for that. I try not to ever just sit around."

As the utility man, McKenzie's weeklong preparation is more complex than other players.

"The switching is good for us because it keeps everybody fresh," said Bostic. "But switching from one tackle to another, for example, is not that difficult because the calls are just reversed. The only one who has to prepare for more than one spot is McKenzie."

McKenzie, who graduated third in his high school class, knows his value.

"I think I can last a long time in this league by being versatile," he said. "The only spot I didn't like was blocking back. I didn't like it when they sent me in motion."