The Redskins are going to draft safety Sean Taylor with their top pick this weekend. Call it the Clinton Portis hunch.

See, Portis wants Jersey No. 26. That’s what the third-year running back from Miami wore with the Broncos, while enjoying two 1,000-yard seasons and the Pro Bowl. He had that number for his first few hours here in Washington, too. When Portis was introduced by management to the media, he got to hold up a burgundy-and-gold shirt with his beloved digits on it.

But then the shirt was taken away, and Portis has yet to get it back.

Turns out that one of the lesser-known Skins, Ifeanyi Ohalete, has worn No. 26 since he joined the squad three years ago. (Amazingly, only LaVar Arrington, Kevin Mitchell, and Chris Samuels have been with Washington longer than Ohalete.)

And Ohalete wants to keep it. Media reports say Portis, who agreed to an eight-year, $50.5 million deal with the Skins, offered to use a portion of his $17 million signing bonus to buy the number from his lesser-paid teammate. Ohalete declined. Portis subsequently challenged Ohalete to fight for rights to the shirt, probably a tongue-in-cheek solicitation, but was also turned down.

Ohalete has fought, without fists, for his jersey number before. Last year, the Redskins acquired Chad Morton of the New York Jets. Morton also wore No. 26. He went to Ohalete to ask for the shirt off his back.

“But Iffy said he wanted to keep it,” says Redskins spokesperson Karl Swanson. “So Chad took another number.”

Redskins team policy is that a player coming in can have any number that’s available and within NFL rules. If a jersey is already taken by somebody on the roster, as was the case with No. 26, it’s up to the new Redskin and the tenured Redskin to “work it out among themselves,” says Swanson. The fact that Ohalete hasn’t found the success or acclaim Portis has while wearing that number is of no concern to the team, says Swanson.

That’s the same policy held by most professional sports teams. But rules aside, it usually turns out that the bigger name gets the number he wants. When the Orioles

re-signed Rafael Palmeiro, he let it be known that he wanted No. 25, the shirt he had worn with the O’s before leaving in 1999 for Texas. Jay Gibbons, who went into the season trailing Raffy by 462 homers, wore that number last year, but gave it up to the returning superstar.

“Jay said, ‘Take it, by all means,’” says Orioles spokesperson Bill Stetka. “He understands what Raffy has done for the game and the Orioles.”

It’s not unheard-of for the lesser name to keep the number, however. Freddy Adu wanted to wear No. 11, the number he sports for the U.S. Junior National Team, when he signed with DC United. But that number was taken by forward Alecko Eskandarian. Adu asked his teammate if he could have No. 11, but Eskandarian turned him down. If any soccer player in this country has clout, it’s young Freddy. But United management stayed out, and rather than raise a Portis-like stink, Adu donned a No. 9 shirt and got on with his career. (Fans all over RFK Stadium at United’s opening-day game were clearly surprised that Adu couldn’t keep his digits, and carried placards hailing “#11” for Freddy. Until United’s season started, Adu had appended his now-former number when he signed autographs.)

The other big free-agent signings in Daniel Snyder’s latest off-season splurge have worked out their duplicate-number issues quietly. Mark Brunell always wore No. 8 during his years with Jacksonville. That was already taken in Washington, by Tim Hasselbeck. But Hasselbeck, who is used to playing second fiddle, knew better than to stand between the new coach’s favorite QB and his favorite number.

“Hasselbeck said he had no strong feelings about it,” says Swanson.

Ohalete, however, is unwilling

to concede the jersey to the bigger-named, higher-paid running back. And Portis, rather than pick another number and put things to rest, has decided to keep the jersey story alive.

He showed up at the Skins minicamp last month wearing No. 3. Unless Portis is thinking about challenging Brunell, punter Tom Tupa, or kicker John Hall for a job, that’s not going to be Portis’ number come opening day. The NFL now has strict edicts dictating what numbers players can wear, based on position.

It’s in Rule 5, Section 1, Article 4 of the NFL rule book: Numbers from 1 to 19 go to quarterbacks, punters, and placekickers—or wide receivers if everything from 80 to 89 is taken; running backs and defensive backs get from 20 to 49; centers get 50 to 59 (or 60 to 79 if all of those are called for); offensive guards and tackles, 60 to 79; wide receivers and tight ends, 80 to 89; defensive lineman, 60 to 79 (or 90 to 99 if unavailable); and linebackers 50 to 59, with 90 to 99 being the emergency numbers.

So Portis has to get another number. Or hope that Ohalete gets cut.

That’s where Sean Taylor comes into the picture.

Ohalete is a safety. So is Taylor, an All-American from Portis’ alma mater, Miami. When, or if, the Skins take Taylor with the No. 5 pick and pay him first-round dollars, he’s likely to step right into the starting lineup for the Skins. That would make Ohalete very expendable—and put the No. 26 jersey back in play.

That sure seems to be what Portis is waiting for: On the Redskins current roster, he’s listed at No. 0. As with his minicamp garb, that’s not a viable number for him come opening day.

“If they don’t decide it by the time they have to assign numbers, then the coach will decide it for them,” says Swanson.

The Redskins, Swanson concedes, want the Ohalete/Portis squabble over as soon as possible. Until Portis gets a real number, the team can’t start selling licensed replica Portis jerseys to fans. But over on eBay, unofficial Portis merchandise, such as Redskins minihelmets that he’s autographed—adding “#26” to his signature—is available. Also up for auction are bootleg burgundy jerseys with No. 26 and “Portis” stenciled on the back.

Maybe these folks know something Ohalete doesn’t.

But when, or if, Taylor comes to Washington, and Portis’ prayers to get his old number back are answered, the veteran Redskin will still have to have some discussions with his rookie teammate. Taylor’s jersey number at Miami?

It’s 26. —Dave McKenna