Although there were some hints Baltimore could decide to retain the No. 1 selection in today's NFL draft, it is expected the Colts will trade the pick to either San Diego or the Los Angeles Raiders before the draft's 8 a.m. start.

Whoever winds up with the No. 1 choice seems certain to take Stanford quarterback John Elway, considered one of the best prospects to come out of college in a decade.

Yesterday, the Elway roller coaster seemed to have bumped off all but two riders: the front-running Chargers and the fast-closing Raiders.

The Chargers still have the upper hand, with three first-round picks in this draft (five, 20 and 22). That's enough to entice the Colts, but league sources said that San Diego has refused to offer all three to Baltimore. Indeed, the Chargers were even reluctant to part with their earliest first-round pick.

The Raiders lack San Diego's bargaining power. Los Angeles has only one opening-round pick, but the Raiders yesterday were trying to trade to secure more No. 1s. Sources said the Raiders' original offer was two No. 1s, two No. 2s, quarterback Marc Wilson and other possible veteran players. Marcus Allen, the star rookie running back, was also believed to part of one L.A. offer.

Yesterday, the Rams obtained the 49ers' second- and fourth-round draft choices by trading defensive lineman Cody Jones and running back Wendell Tyler.

Thanks to Baltimore owner Robert Irsay, the Elway story was ending with some wonderful twists. Over the weekend, Irsay said the Chargers no longer were being considered because he didn't like the way San Diego had handled negotiations. He all but said the Raiders would wind up with the Colt pick.

Yet there was no doubt yesterday the Chargers had not been eliminated. According to Colts General Manager Ernie Accorsi, "We know what we want (for Elway) and if we don't get it, we'll draft Elway. We won't compromise."

Accorsi said the compensation for Elway would be the highest ever paid for trading the first pick. The Colts have turned down a New England offer that included three No. 1s, in part because the Patriots and Baltimore are in the same division.

The Raiders' interest could be the leverage the Colts need to pry away the Chargers' three No. 1s. Otherwise, San Diego would face the prospect of playing against Elway twice a year, because the Raiders and Chargers are in the same division.

The Colts would be taking a major gamble by picking Elway, who already has indicated he would rather sign a baseball contract with the Yankees than play in Baltimore.

The Elway maneuverings have overshadowed those of the Houston Oilers, who heretofore have not been known for front office brillance.

But the Oilers have taken their No. 1 pick, which is second in the draft, and parlayed it into four selections. They now have eight of the first 88 choices in the draft.

First, the Oilers traded with the Los Angeles Rams, giving the Rams their overall No. 2 for the Rams' overall No. 3 pick, plus a fourth-round pick this year and a fourth-rounder next year. Then Houston dealt its new-found overall No. 3 choice for the Seahawks' overall No. 9 choice and this year's second- and third-round picks.

With those trades, it appears that the first three players taken in the draft will be Elway, running back Eric Dickerson of SMU (by Los Angeles) and running back Curt Warner of Penn State (by Seattle).

ABC radio reported last night that free agent quarterback Dan Fouts had come to terms with the San Diego Chargers. No details of the agreement were revealed.