In the last month, by Bobby Beathard's estimation, the United States Football League has signed six players who would have been first-round draft choices in the National Football League, one second-round choice, and a whole bunch of other good prospects.

Is there fear and loathing in the NFL? "Let 'em eat cake," said Mike Hickey, the New York Jets director of player personnel. " 'Cause they may not have a lot of meat."

This caused Jim Gould, president of the Washington Federals, to sputter. "Craig James is meat. Tim Spencer is meat. Kelvin Bryant is meat," he said, indignantly, referring to the running backs who signed with the Federals, the Chicago Blitz, and the Philadelphia Stars, respectively.

Now Gould was on a roll: "There are two types of war: one where you go out and beat the NFL and another type, a psychological war, where you get them to start beating themselves. I'm not at war with the Redskins. I'm at war with the mentality that we're so big and almighty nobody can compete with us. That's the 'let 'em eat cake' routine. That's the arrogance we're at war with."

So much for noblesse oblige.

The question is, what if anything, will the USFL force the NFL to do? Many in the NFL take the lofty historical point of view. "This is the fourth league I've personally seen come along," said Tex Schramm, president of the Dallas Cowboys. "They'll either self-destruct, or if they don't . . . In the case of the AFL, it turned out to be good for the NFL."

Jim Finks, general manager of the Chicago Bears, said, "I don't think losing a handful of players is going to make or break the NFL. If it keeps up for three or four years, I don't think it will."

Beathard said earlier this week, the draft, which had been projected as one of the best in years, is looking less attractive with every USFL signing. "It hurts all the teams," he said. "It hurts us because we pick 28th."

"We've been spoiled," said George Young, general manager of the New York Giants. "We've never lost anybody. We're paying a pretty great price."

But the most anyone in the NFL will concede is a touch of concern and a bit of surprise. "I don't think they expected it," Hickey said. "Certainly they can cope with it. It's not a panic situation. It's not a code red where everyone's throwing up their hands. It's like last year with the blue chips--there's just not as many (as there would have been)."

"They're very scared," said Gould.

The first thing the NFL is likely to do is move up the draft date in 1984, which the new collective bargaining agreement prohibited this year. According to Jack Donlan, executive director of the NFL Management Council, the date may be moved up next year as long as it takes place no later than six days after the Pro Bowl, or, in its absence, 10 days after the Super Bowl. That was because the union did not want the NFL to hold its draft just before the beginning of the USFL season, "the worst of all possible times," said Ed Garvey, executive director of the NFLPA.

Garvey said the draft date was one of the issues that prolonged last season's players strike. "They wanted the right to move it to Feb. 1," Garvey said. "We wanted to give the USFL a chance to get out of the chute, to make sure they had a free year. It was a big issue."

Donlan remembers it differently. "It was not given a hell of a lot of consideration at all," he said.

This does not make personnel people happy. "I would have rather it had been moved up so we could go head to head with them," said Beathard. "This way our hands are tied. It was a mistake."

Others are still not convinced that moving the date is a good idea. "I don't know if it's best to get into a head-to-head war with the new league," said Young. "Suppose you got in a bidding war and we had already had our draft. That way you could lose the player and the choice, too. This way, at least you're not losing the choice."

Beathard said: "It doesn't scare me so much to get in a bidding war. Of course, it's not my money. At least that way you've got a shot. What I hate is not having a shot. It's that helpless feeling. It's very frustrating."

Agents, of course, will do their best to exploit the competitive situation. Bob Woolf, who represents Michigan's Anthony Carter, and Marvin Demoff, who represents Penn State's Curt Warner, estimate that newly negotiated salaries in the NFL will rise about 25 percent this year because of the USFL.

According to Bryant's agent, Perry Deering, Bryant signed a four-year contract with the Stars worth close to $2 million. Sources say Spencer signed a four-year contract with the Blitz worth $2.2 million, and James a four-year deal worth $1.5 with the Federals. Irv Eatman, UCLA offensive tackle, reportedly signed a four-year contract worth $1 million with the Stars.

Some NFL executives, as well as some agents, say that the figures may be misleading, that several of them may contain provisions for deferred payments.

Still, many feel that the NFL, in Demoff's words, "underestimated and misunderstood what the USFL was going to do with draft."

That may be because the USFL changed its policy. Initially, there was supposed to be a ceiling of $1.2-$1.4 million on player salaries for each team, said Federals owner Berl Bernhard.

The decision was made to increase that amount by $300,000-$400,000, he said. Many of the teams have made an attempt to sign at least one high-priced college player. "I'm not sure we would have done that if not for the strike," Bernhard said.

Each of the UFSL owners signed a $1.5 million letter of credit that was put in a central fund to assure that the league would remain viable for at least two years. "The funds are not to be used and cannot be used for (signing) players," Bernhard said.

Richard Bennett, a Washington attorney who represents Spencer, as well as Redskins Mike Nelms and Neal Olkewicz, said: "Obviously, the USFL is not going to sign four or five (top players) a club. The impact is the that the NFL doesn't know where they'll (USFL) strike next."

He thinks NFL clubs will be less likely to encourage players to play out their options, as they have in the past. Demoff thinks there will be more players getting contracts extended. He also believes that the USFL is likely to compensate for whatever foot dragging on increases the NFL clubs might have pleaded due to the strike.

Money is not the only lure. According to Greg Lustig, agent for Jack Lambert of the NFL Steelers, every one of the USFL's top college players has received a partial or complete guarantee. "That's what scares them (the NFL)," he said. "They abhor them. When we've raised it about Lambert, they've raised the offer to get away from it."

"Guarantees are an abomination," said the Giants' Young. "We've done it before. It will be limited."

Gil Brandt, vice president in charge of personnel development for the Dallas Cowboys, said, "The guarantees are going to be a problem down the line."

Hickey sounded almost angry that a player would accept a guarantee to play in the USFL. "Actually, I'm appalled at the number that have signed," he said. "Unfortunately, I think its a sad commentary on the young people coming out of school today."

He said he expected three types of college players to sign with the USFL: those under financial duress, those lacking the size or ability to compete in the NFL, and those who "didn't want to accept the challenge" of making it in the NFL. "This great draft year we've all been talking about, maybe we could have come up with egg on our face because they're not as competitive as we judged them to be."

Gould began to sputter again. "Their day in the country, their place in the sun, is now going to be shared," he said. "That's a fact. We're not saying, 'Move over, guys.' We're not asking them.

"It's done."