The Washington Redskins will make running back Stephen Davis, who is eligible for unrestricted free agency, their franchise player if they are unable to complete a multiyear contract with him by Feb. 10, director of player personnel Vinny Cerrato said yesterday.

The NFL free agent signing period begins on Feb. 11, the day after the deadline for each team to designate a franchise player. Cerrato said the Redskins are prepared to begin negotiations with Davis and agent Steve Weinberg, but will not permit Davis to enter the free agent market if a deal is not completed by Feb. 10.

"Stephen won't be on the market," Cerrato said.

Cerrato and team owner Daniel M. Snyder met with Davis and four other Redskins eligible for unrestricted free agency--fullback Larry Centers, guard Keith Sims, center Cory Raymer and defensive end Marco Coleman--at Redskin Park yesterday following Coach Norv Turner's meeting with the entire club. Cerrato and Snyder told each of the players they wanted him to return next season.

Making Davis the franchise player virtually would ensure that he would remain with the Redskins next season, since any NFL club signing him would have to surrender two first-round draft choices as compensation. As a franchise player, Davis's salary next season would be the average of the league's five highest-paid running backs. That is projected to be about $3.7 million next season. Davis, 25, earned $934,000 this season.

Davis has said he wants to remain with the Redskins and is optimistic that a deal will be worked out. He left Redskin Park yesterday without speaking to reporters. Weinberg did not return telephone messages.

The Redskins would like to keep the nucleus of this season's team intact, and that means re-signing most of the eight starters (Davis, Centers, Sims, Raymer, tackle Andy Heck, Coleman, defensive end Anthony Cook and safety Leomont Evans) eligible for unrestricted free agency. Wide receiver Albert Connell, linebacker Derek Smith, place kicker Brett Conway and defensive end Ndukwe Kalu are among the Redskins eligible for restricted free agency.

The Redskins did not negotiate with their prospective free agents during the season and lost offseason negotiating time when the NFL recently moved the onset of the free agent signing period from March 2 to Feb. 11.

"We'll start immediately contacting agents," Cerrato said. ". . . We know what we would like to get done. We have not discussed money with any agents. We did not want to have any distractions during the season. . . . Our goal is to re-sign most of our guys, restricted and unrestricted."

Coleman, Centers, Raymer and Sims said following their meetings with Snyder and Cerrato yesterday that they would like to remain with the Redskins after a season in which the team won the NFC East title and advanced to the second round of the playoffs.

"That left a real strong desire for myself to be back here, and get back to that point," Coleman said. "We all know how the business end of professional sports is right now. It makes it more difficult to keep that team concept. Hopefully we'll be able to keep as many guys as possible."

Centers said he might even be willing to take less money from the Redskins than he could get elsewhere.

"I don't know about anyone

else's situation, but I'm willing to be as creative as I need to be if they [the Redskins] have salary cap problems," Centers said.

Raymer said yesterday's meeting with Snyder and Cerrato gave him "reassurance" about the team's desire to re-sign him, and Sims indicated he would like to sign a two- or three-year deal.

"We haven't gotten that far yet, but I think I have three productive years left," Sims said. "I would like to finish my career as a Redskin."

The Redskins will try to acquire a starting left tackle during the offseason, according to sources, but they apparently are leaving open the possibility of re-signing Heck.

"It doesn't surprise me they'd be looking to upgrade the position," Heck said. "I've dealt with that every year of my career. I just hope I have a chance to come back and compete for a job. I think I deserve that. . . . I think I'll get that chance."

Redskins' Free Agents

Unrestricted Free Agents

(Free to sign with any team beginning Feb. 11.)

Pos. Player

T Jamie Brown

CB Curtis Buckley

FB Larry Centers

DE Marco Coleman

DE Anthony Cook

HB Stephen Davis

S Leomont Evans

LB James Francis

LB Kurt Gouveia

T Andy Heck

CB Mark McMillian

G Rod Milstead

CB Tito Paul

S Darryl Pounds

C Cory Raymer

G Keith Sims

S Matt Stevens

LB Fred Strickland

C Dan Turk

T Kipp Vickers

Restricted Free Agents

(Redskins can retain these players by matching offers from other teams.)

Pos. Player

G Brad Badger

WR Albert Connell

K Brett Conway

DE Ndukwe Kalu

LB Eddie Mason

LB Twan Russell

LB Derek Smith

DT Barron Tanner

WR James Thrash