It was late afternoon after a Saturday scrimmage in Baltimore, and Ray Lewis had just finished icing the back of his neck. The Beltways' best linebacker was asked about the player once on a path to compete for that label, LaVar Arrington.

"First and foremost, he's a great friend," Lewis said of Arrington, who is trying to recover from a second knee surgery in the offseason.

Lewis empathizes with Arrington as he is reclaiming his health. What might be harder, however, is reclaiming his position as the team's most valuable defender of the last five years.

"There's some differences between how he plays, a little headhunter style, and how they play defense as a team now," Lewis said. "I don't know what's going on over there, what schemes they're running and all that. So it would be wrong for me to say who has to do what to make it work. But they definitely need to work together, to incorporate each other."

Therein lies one of the Redskins' most hidden fears: how Arrington will fit in when he returns from injury.

Arrington, who watched from the sideline during Washington's scrimmage against the Ravens, is all about improvisation on the field. He moves and responds on feel, instinct, athletic ability. Gregg Williams, the assistant head coach-defense, wants only two qualities from his players: They need to read offensive sets correctly and make a play on the ball quickly. Arrington is one of the most articulate, thoughtful players on the roster, yet he is not system-smart. Coming off knee surgery, speed also might be a question.

At this point, there has to be a real concern about how Arrington will fit in with this defense.

He played only two full games last season and missed 12 with a bone bruise. Lemar Marshall filled in admirably a year ago at weak-side linebacker, where Arrington was moved at the beginning of last year. Marshall has been moved to middle linebacker this season, and the team signed Warrick Holdman, a capable seven-year veteran, to fill the spot behind Arrington this season. If Arrington misses three or all four preseason games and the coaching staff develops confidence in Holdman, Arrington may have to worry about retaining his job rather than worrying about another Pro Bowl.

He has already been humbled by the injury. For a player most identified with the team the past six years -- his jerseys were all over the backs of fans Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium -- Arrington is facing an uphill challenge.

He has not spoken to the media since April, after criticizing the franchise for not promptly announcing his second knee surgery, and over issues relating to a contract grievance that is stalled in its 17th month.

"He didn't mean any disrespect. He was just basically saying he wasn't happy," Lewis said. "Some people aren't happy with their job or their wife, they say it. That's all it was, him voicing his opinion. He has a right to do that."

Williams refuses to make any proclamations about whether Arrington will start when he returns from injury, meaning Arrington will almost certainly have to earn his playing time. Williams has said even Marcus Washington, the only Pro Bowler on last season's defense, has to earn his playing time.

Envisioning the 6-foot-3, 255-pound Arrington coming in as a designated rusher on third-down situations is not hard. But when, or if, he returns for 50 to 60 snaps per game is more difficult to predict.

After all, this is a defense that ranked third in the NFL last season. How much will Williams tinker with that system to incorporate Arrington? A team employee intimated to The Post last week that the off-field rift between the club and Arrington had grown nasty enough that the franchise has stopped using Arrington for marketing purposes.

Arrington contends the team omitted $6.5 million in bonuses agreed upon for the 2006 season, filing his grievance in March 2004. If neither side can settle, the issue will go to arbitration. It's yet another obstacle in front of him.

Arrington attended the scrimmage Saturday. According to a reporter who spotted him, he wore a white-brim Palmetto in the same vein as Sam Snead. Stylish as always, he appears ready to get back on the field.

Lewis was there, too, menacing as ever as he stared across the line for a few plays. He is 30, three years older than Arrington. He said he genuinely feels comfortable with being referred to as an old-school linebacker at this juncture of his career. As a player, he is aging gracefully with the team that brought him into the league. He is still the face of the Baltimore franchise.

The moment Joe Gibbs returned, Arrington gave up the face-of-the-franchise label. He is still the most recognized Washington player. But if LaVar Arrington cannot return to full strength and be the defensive force he once was in a new and more disciplined system, that could end, too.

One of the big questions this season will be how linebacker LaVar Arrington will fit in with a defense that ranked third in the NFL last year.