If the NFL invited its most talented trash talkers to the Pro Bowl, Washington Redskins cornerback Fred Smoot would be an annual selection. Smoot's wit, oratorical skills and self-confidence are renown, while his stature as a formidable defensive back has grown steadily. So, true to form, with star Champ Bailey now departed and Washington eager for another franchise cornerback to emerge, Smoot is not reserved about predicting greatness for the upcoming season.

"It's a gimme that I'm going to make the Pro Bowl; it's a gimme," said Smoot, who has never received that honor. "But I'm not really worried about the individual awards; I'm worried about playing in the playoffs. I've been in the league too long without playing in the playoffs. We've got rookies that lucked up and got on the right team last year and don't play a down and they've got a ring on their finger. I'm trying to bring the excitement back to Washington, D.C., that was here the last time the old man [Coach Joe Gibbs] was here."

Smoot, 25, has suddenly become the dean of the Redskins' secondary after three seasons as a precocious understudy, making him one of the keys to the upcoming season. Gibbs, back after a 12-year absence, has praised Smoot's performance during the team's final minicamp, which concluded yesterday, and the organization is hoping that the lessons imparted to him from a pantheon of top cornerbacks -- from Darrell Green to Deion Sanders to Bailey -- will result in superior production.

In the past, Bailey, who was traded to Denver in March in exchange for Pro Bowl running back Clinton Portis, would draw the most difficult assignments each Sunday, lining up against the best wide receivers in the NFL. Gregg Williams, Washington's assistant head coach in charge of defense, plans to utilize multiple sets and diverse schemes this season -- given his proclivity for creative defensive machinations -- and the matchups with wide receivers could fluctuate. But Smoot will surely inherit more responsibility, duties that will only increase with Terrell Owens (Philadelphia) and Keyshawn Johnson (Dallas) now catching passes in the NFC East.

So far, Smoot has eagerly embraced the opportunity, spending more time at Redskins Park studying his craft and preparing for the season.

"He's doing a lot of things behind the scenes above and beyond his other teammates," Williams said during Washington's May minicamp. "Not many people see him hanging around here, but I do. I see him in here way early and staying late."

Smoot, a second-round pick out of Mississippi State in 2001, raised his stature last season by enduring an agonizing chest injury. Smoot's sternum was broken, making even the most mundane tasks painful, yet he was on the field late in the season taking hits and giving them. ("I'm a country, Mississippi guy," Smoot said. "I was born tough, man.") Sometimes, the pain was so severe it would cause Smoot to vomit, yet even when the Redskins' playoff hopes were fading, he played on.

"I think he's earned a lot of respect," linebacker LaVar Arrington said. "For all of the people who thought Fred was a lot of talk, I think he kind of showed them something different. There's not very many people that can walk the walk like they talk; Fred Smoot talks a whole lot and fortunately enough for him he walks the walk. So I'm looking for him to have a huge season this year."

Gibbs, admittedly a bit old school, has taken to the defensive back as he attempts to identify character players who will help foster the team's identity and chemistry.

Smoot's infectious smile and gregarious nature have not gone unnoticed.

"Fred, from what I can tell, likes football and it's fun, and he makes it fun for everybody else," Gibbs said. "I think he likes being out there. Let's face it, some guys don't. They're playing football because they are gifted and not necessarily loving it, and I think he kind of likes it and I think it's kind of contagious and it spreads to other people."

How long Smoot and Gibbs are together remains to be seen. Smoot is a potential free agent after this season, has been the subject of trade talk and, if he has a career year, may prove too expensive to retain. But for Smoot, nothing would be better than becoming the next great cornerback in Washington, extending a legacy that spans from Green's arrival in 1983.

"I've been around the best," Smoot said. "I got it handed down from Darrell Green to Deion to Champ Bailey, and now it's mine. Now I'll get my just desserts in the NFL."

Like Deion Sanders, who wore the Redskins' No. 21 before him, Fred Smoot, above, has the gift for gab as well as for shutting down opposing receivers.SMOOT