The U.S. Football League, by signing eight potential first-round NFL draft picks to lucrative contracts, has won itself some unlikely fans--veteran NFL stars, whose salary level is almost certain to increase dramatically as a result of competition between the leagues.

"God bless 'em, every one of the rookies," said Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, who last year agreed to a $1.5 million, four-year contract that now is being topped by almost all of the best 1983 rookies. "This is accomplishing for us what the strike and not having free agency couldn't do. I don't resent them a bit. The money is out there and if teams are willing to pay it, then they should grab it. I think it shows that owners will bid for players and will pay a lot of money for them. You only wish you could be part of the bidding derby."

It started with the signing of Herschel Walker by the USFL's New Jersey franchise and was bolstered greatly when John Elway signed with the NFL's Denver Broncos. It has continued with the USFL signing the eight well-regarded rookies, whose contracts far exceed those signed by the best 1982 NFL rookies.

Consider this: at least two quarterbacks, Elway of the NFL and Jim Kelly of the USFL's Houston Gamblers, will earn a larger base salary their first pro season than did the highest-paid 1983 NFL quarterback (Buffalo's Joe Ferguson at $440,000). Elway will make $600,000, Kelly about $500,000. Theismann, the NFC's top-rated quarterback in 1983, will make about $300,000.

"Everyone was trying to say at first that Elway's signing ($5 million for five years) wouldn't affect the other No. 1s, but it has. It has affected our situation here," said Seattle General Manager Mike McCormack. "Also, the agents and players get full disclosure through the union. Everyone knows the salary figures right away. They come in and say they aren't going to take less than the other people. Maybe Ed Garvey got his wage scale after all."

Four of the initial 12 first-round players signed by the NFL this spring received 1983 base salaries exceeding $160,000, which was the highest base paid to any 1982 rookie (Johnie Cooks, Baltimore). Signing bonuses also have increased, and NFL teams are agreeing to more contract guarantees, reflecting a standard USFL policy. And those numbers don't include either Eric Dickerson or Curt Warner, the second and third players taken in the NFL draft, who remain unsigned.

Another indication of the USFL effect: Darrell Green, the Redskins' No. 1 choice and last player selected in the first round, will earn more than $110,000 this season. That's a higher base salary than the last 18 players chosen in the 1982 first round, and it's higher than the base of all but six players picked in that first round.

"I would have been satisfied if the USFL had signed three or four first-rounders, but to get eight and still not be finished, well, I think it's something," said Washington Federals General Manager Dick Myers. "I'm not saying it will have any short-range effect on the caliber of play in the NFL, but it certainly doesn't hurt us to have some great young players choosing our league over the NFL."

These young stars give the USFL credibility: quarterbacks Kelly and Reggie Collier, receivers Trumaine Johnson and Anthony Carter and running backs Gary Anderson, Craig James, Kelvin Bryant and Tim Spencer. Anderson and Kelly were signed after the NFL draft; the other six already were in USFL uniforms by late April. The USFL also has made substantial offers to at least two other unsigned first-rounders, Dickerson and Dan Marino. Eleven of the NFL's 28 first-rounders remain unsigned.

"Like it or not, the NFL realizes the USFL has had a dramatic impact," said Rick Bennett, an attorney who represents a number of NFL stars. "To admit otherwise would be to bury your head in the sand. It makes sense. Any time you have two employers fighting for your services, you are going to benefit through higher wages. Without the competition, you have no real leverage."

What amazes Bennett is that some rookies are signing with the NFL at salary levels he considers inadequate. "There is no reason to settle for old rates," he said.

NFL executives are dealing much better with the loss of some first-round draft choices than they are with the accelerating salary levels, triggered by a combination of Walker, Elway and the USFL.

Walker and Elway became the first of pro football's million-dollar players, climbing into that rarefied contract area occupied by so many NBA and major league baseball players. The USFL raised the ante by offering lesser-known rookies big contracts and NFL sources say that league is countering by offering its second-round picks big salaries and signing bonuses of up to $300,000 to ward off USFL bids. Only eight of 28 NFL second-rounders were signed as of Wednesday.

The feeling in the NFL seems to be this: we can live without a few first-rounders, but the days of controlled, low-level contracts are over.

If the USFL collapsed in a season or two, the NFL knows it would absorb these lost rookies. But the USFL salary legacy will live on now.

"I think the bigger TV money in the new TV contract is the reason for bigger salaries," said Redskins General Manager Bobby Beathard, who tried to draft players in whom the USFL had no known interest. "I know the USFL hasn't affected us very much.

"Really, losing those eight guys to the other league just means that guys who would have been drafted in the second round were taken in the first. They'll benefit financially. But in the long run, those eight will be hurt more by not playing in the NFL than the NFL will be hurt by not having them."

Tom Braatz, Atlanta Falcons general manager, hasn't even begun serious bargaining with his first-round choice, Mike Pitts. "They say they want to wait until almost everyone else is signed, so they can get a good line on contracts," Braatz said. "The USFL has affected things, no doubt about it, although sometimes I think we are negotiating against ourselves.

"By my count, the USFL has signed 80 players we thought were of draftable quality. To me, that's more important than the eight first-rounders. I think we should take on the USFL and fight 'em. They aren't going away."

McCormack, who still is trying to sign Warner, said, "I don't think you can give the USFL all the credit for what is happening. There is no question the overall salary structure has changed, but whether it's the USFL, the strike being settled and the collective bargaining agreement going into place or the new TV contract taking effect with its new money, it's hard to say."

Bennett believes the USFL's effect has been great and now the NFL "has two choices. They can continue to ignore the USFL . . . or they can face up to it and admit that the USFL is a legitimate force and is going to be eating away at them."

Bennett was a pioneer in negotiations with the USFL. He represented Ohio State's Spencer, who was the initial first-round caliber rookie to sign with the new league. Spencer settled for a Chicago Blitz contract in excess of $2 million, which was higher than the contract signed by the first player chosen in the 1982 NFL draft (Kenneth Sims of New England, $1.7 million).

There is a striking similarity in the base salaries paid most of the 1982 first-rounders by the NFL: 20 of the 27 players (New Orleans did not have a first-round pick) received between $80,000 and $100,000.

In the NFL, the first-rounders still are signing five- or six-year contracts averaging from $150,000 to $200,000 a year. In the USFL, the contracts are for three or four years and for about $50,000 more a year," Bennett said. "You look at the NFL contracts. The similarities are startling. You would think the same person was negotiating the contracts."

The full effect of the Elway signing and these first-round USFL signings on NFL veterans is just starting to be felt. Two standout quarterbacks, Dan Fouts and Doug Williams, are free agents who want substantial increases. (Fouts made $283,750 last year, Williams $120,000.) They remain unsigned. But league sources say early returns on contracts signed by veteran players show about a 60 percent increase over their respective 1982 base salaries.

"That's about the same as the year before, when teams were trying to sign up players with hefty raises to affect their attitude about the union and the strike," said one union source. "But if the 60 percent increase stands up and then comes around again next year, it's really going to have a significant impact."