The Washington Redskins have a new starter this week and he doesn't much resemble any of the others.

Eric Williams has done a pilot for a television show on cooking, has a degree in agricultural economics from Washington State and can talk up books, politics and bars as well as the run-and-shoot and the Red Gun.

He may be the only Redskin whose idea of paradise is an afternoon when he can throw back the top on his '65 Lincoln Continental (with suicide doors), plug in a Hank Williams Jr. tape and cruise with his Great Dane, Coach, riding shotgun.

On a team that very much reflects the personality of its cautious, straight-laced coach, he's something completely different. He's a laugher and a prankster, and at 28, admits that some of his best offseason work has been done, not in weight rooms, but in the Tex-Mex restaurants of Texas and night spots of northern California.

He said he knew the Redskins would be different after about one practice when what was supposed to be practice seemed for all the world like a midweek game, with tackling and blocking and the whole works.

"That hamburger they gave us for lunch," he said with a smile in September, "I didn't know that was also a pregame meal."

When the Redskins acquired him from the Detroit Lions for James Wilder and a fourth-round draft pick two months ago, they said it was a trade that might look better in three months than it did in one.

Williams had been a training camp holdout and needed a few weeks to play himself into shape. But he had been a five-year starter with the Lions, although forced to play defensive end in a 3-4 defense instead of his more natural position, tackle in a 4-3.

Former Lions coach Monte Clark had drafted him to do just that in 1984, but Clark was gone almost before Williams arrived.

"I was born to play tackle in the 4-3," he said. "I was slow when it came to being a defensive end in the 3-4. I was good against the run, but in terms of pass rush, I couldn't get around the corner like a Charles Mann. I always thought I was perfect for a 4-3."

He replaced Tracy Rocker on the third series of Sunday's 21-10 loss to the New York Giants and played the remainder of the game. The Redskins said they'd planned to rotate him and Rocker, but that once Williams got in there, he played too well to take out.

He was credited with a career-high 14 tackles and a pass-deflection and, coincidentally, moves into the starting lineup this week against his former teammates.

"It's special," he said. "I'm looking forward to it. It'll be awkward playing against my teammates for real versus practice. Now I get to see what Barry Sanders is really like. We never got to touch him during practice, and usually we couldn't anyway. It'll be interesting."

It's interesting too because of the circumstances of his departure. When Williams ended his holdout and signed a $425,000 contract, he had said the Lions promised not to trade him. Six days after he signed, he was traded.

After the trade was made, he ripped Lions General Manager Chuck Schmidt, calling him, among other things, dishonest. This week, he said his anger has cooled. He has adjusted to life with the Redskins and is even willing to consider moving to Northern Virginia to take part in Coach Joe Gibbs's year-round conditioning work.

But . . .

Detroit had been home. He was popular there, considered it his home away from northern California and counted several of the Lions as his closest friends.

"The whole thing was not about being angry because of the trade," he said. "I was hurt at the beginning. And now I really . . . I almost wanted to call Wayne {Fontes, Lions coach} and say I was sorry. I said a lot of things maybe I shouldn't have. I was hurt and that was the way I could lash back. Maybe I shouldn't have. Wayne is a great coach and great guy.

"The thing that hurt me was that after putting in seven years there, and all of a sudden getting a phone call after you'd just signed. . . . Why didn't they say, 'Eric, come down we'd like to talk to you.'? They could have said, 'Hey, Eric, we know we told you we wouldn't trade you, but we got a deal here too good to pass up.' Just let me get a hug and say goodbye to everybody. Instead, I got a phone call that said, 'Hey, you're traded.' I thought that was a little cold."

However, Williams spoke several times this week of his respect for Fontes, and Fontes said the same thing about Williams yesterday.

Fontes remembered phoning Williams after the trade and that the conversation "was so strained and emotional that we had to cut it off. It was hard talking to him and he had a hard time talking to me. We decided to pick it up later. He'll be looking for me Sunday and I'll be looking for him. He'll give me a bear hug and we'll talk. He's special."

Williams: "I have so many friends there. I want to see my crazy roommate Jim Arnold. I want to say goodbye to the ladies that work in the office. They were great to me. I'd like to say goodbye to a lot of people I didn't get a chance to when I was rushed out of there."

Having settled in with the Redskins, Williams said he has found the change refreshing. "The relationship between management and the people downstairs is different," he said. "There was always a tug of war in Detroit. Here, everybody's pulling the same direction. I think the Lions are changing a lot of things, doing a lot of good things. But I went through a lot of coaching changes and general manager changes. I saw the good and bad side."

He noticed a difference Monday, in the hours after the Redskins had lost another tough, close game to the Giants. Players were sore and upset when Gibbs had them back on the field, and Williams said: "We get on with it pretty quick here. I've noticed that. You're down, you're hurt, but you have to get on with it. I think the feeling here is that a better team beat us today, but we're going to set our sights on the next team come Monday. In Detroit, we kind of sulked a little more. Maybe because we came close so many times."

Now he starts what the Redskins hope will be a long, prosperous career. He'll line up beside Charles Mann on the left side, and having established himself in the league, he may take some of the double-team pressure away from Mann.

"Playing is what it's all about," he said. "It's fun being part of it, and if we could win and I sat out the whole game, that'd be fine. But it's fun knowing you're going to be part of things. I think I still have some good football left in me. This is a chance to show it."