They are a motley crew, these Washington Federals. A defensive end pushing 40, a quarterback who threw four passes in three years with the Redskins, dozens of NFL castoffs, a rookie running back who earns more than the entire defense.

Again and again, USFL Commissioner Chet Simmons has said the new league "will make its own stars." General managers and coaches around the league have made that their refrain. And the Federals' roster, like those of the league's 11 other franchises, echoes that refrain.

The USFL will have to make its own stars for a number of reasons.

Only five of the USFL's first-round draftees have signed contracts: Southern Methodist running back Craig James with the Federals, Southern Mississippi quarterback Reggie Collier with the Birmingham Stallions, Wisconsin safety David Greenwood with the Michigan Panthers and Ohio State running back Tim Spencer and Grambling wide receiver Trumaine Johnson with the Chicago Blitz (which got a second selection through a trade).

Players such as Pittsburgh quarterback Dan Marino and SMU running back Eric Dickerson so far have refused lucrative USFL offers, preferring instead to wait for the NFL's April draft.

Although many USFL officials contend they are not in direct competition with the NFL because their seasons do not coincide, they do compete for the talent. Most top players will continue to opt for the more established league for reasons of publicity and prestige.

James, who signed a four-year contract for more than $1.5 million, would not have received a comparable offer from the NFL, said the Federals' director of player personnel, Mike Faulkiner. Dickerson, on the other hand, is a more dominant runner and reportedly turned down an offer of $1.5 million by the Arizona Wranglers.

"Dickerson could get that in the NFL. If a player can get basically the same money with the NFL, he's still going to go to the NFL. That's not about to change for a while," said Faulkiner.

Another refrain often heard among USFL officials is that they must "avoid the mistakes of the old World Football League." Besides its penchant for gimmickry, one of the errors of the WFL was that its owners were unable or unwilling to afford the enormous costs of operating quality professional football teams.

When the Memphis Southmen signed the heart of the Miami Dolphins' offense--running backs Jim Kiick and Larry Csonka and receiver Paul Warfield--the other teams in the league were unable to counter.

The USFL is trying to prevent such a fiscal and competitive imbalance by setting a basic $1.5 million-a-year budget for player salaries. The league's owners have agreed that additional big-money contracts, such as the one signed by James, will be limited.

A talk with Federals Coach Ray Jauch and General Manager Dick Myers gave an indication of how they would create a team.

"The league comes first. We don't want to drive each other out of business," said Jauch. "We don't want what happened with the Memphis team happening to us."

"The prudent thing for us to do is not sign everyone in sight," said Myers. "We can't afford to do that and last."

"The thing to do is to build slowly," said Jauch. "Each year you sign a kid or two and add to what you already have."

So, while a number of first-round draft choices and, perhaps, some NFL free agents will add both quality and glitter to the league in its first year, it mainly will feature players with little, or unsuccessful, pro experience.

Some teams, like the Michigan Panthers, brought as many as 140 players to camp in search of a talented 40.

In the Federals' camp, former players in the NFL, such as running backs Bobby Hammond (Giants, Redskins) and Don Testerman (Seahawks) are getting an opportunity to play again. But, then, so are lesser knowns.

"The ones you've heard of aren't necessarily the ones who are going to start or even make the team," said Myers.

The Federals proved they were willing to cut former NFL players when they released former Redskins tight end Reggie Haynes. "He just didn't prove to us he wanted to play," said Jauch.

While the WFL had to sign big-name players in order to attract attention, the USFL has television contracts with ABC and ESPN to ensure exposure. While they compete with the NFL for players, they are vying with baseball, and not the NFL, for television viewers.

The USFL is hoping that a number of players--perhaps some who signed for as little as $18,000--will emerge as stars without ever having done so in the NFL.

"It will happen," said Myers. "Look at Alvin Garrett. Football people knew who he was, but that was about it."

Garrett, the Redskins' 5-foot-7 wide receiver from Angelo State, was claimed on waivers after he was released by the Giants. After Art Monk was injured, he stepped in to help lead the Redskins to the Super Bowl.

"There's a lot of talent out there and the USFL is going to find a lot of it," said Faulkiner. "Some of these players will surprise people."