Some free-agent receiver from Nowhere State spotted a couple of strangers in the Cleveland Browns' locker room the other morning and said, accurately enough, "You guys must be more of them Kosar hunters, huh?"

It doesn't take a trained eye to realize that the media-ites have descended upon the meteorite named Bernie Kosar here in the heart and the heat of Ohio. He is Cleveland's most popular No. 19 since Bob Feller.

Kosar is the rookie quarterback from the University of Miami who won a national title in his freshman year of 1983 and passed for nearly 6,000 yards in 25 college games. He is a 21-year-old with a gun of an arm, a cannon of a contract and a silencer on his voice.

Kosar's 40-yard dash time is in synch with his contract: 5 flat. Make that $5 million for five years. Is it any wonder then that expectations now sit on Kosar's shoulders like a ton of mortar and bricks?

"I just want to get as much done today to put me in the best position for tomorrow," Kosar says, like a machine spewing the same old printout. He has been limited to one mass-media interview per week. The first lasted 22 minutes, the next lasted 11 and this week's lasted 16.

There is something singular about Kosar, though: he wants to play in Cleveland. In the NFL, that's Cleveland spelled land of the freeze, home of the dazed.

"It's the first time in my memory that any professional athlete in any sport has ever said he wants to play in Cleveland," says Art Modell, for 25 years the Browns' owner. "All we've had here is (proposed) bridges leading to Canada, mayors with burning hair, and we've kept Johnny Carson on the air for more than 20 years."

Modell says football people tell him Kosar will become the next Joe Namath. Paul Warfield, the Hall of Fame wide receiver now a Browns executive, says Kosar must be allowed to avoid the pressures that ruined the rookie seasons of Terry Bradshaw (six touchdown passes and 24 interceptions with Pittsburgh in 1970) and John Elway (injured often, he threw for seven touchdowns and 14 interceptions with Denver in 1983).

Ernie Accorsi, the Browns' executive vice president, says he saw Bert Jones get pushed too fast in his rookie year at Baltimore in 1973 and get replaced by Marty Domres, and that the same thing can't be allowed to hurt Kosar, too.

One bold fan at the Browns' scrimmage in Buffalo last week paraded behind the Cleveland bench with a sign reading, "KOSAR, THE BROWNS' MESSIAH."

From all indications, the Browns need Kosar about as much as they needed Jim Brown 28 years ago. The Browns finished 5-11 last year. Their defense ranked first in the conference (allowing 290 yards per game), which tells you something about Cleveland's offense.

"I don't know that pressure is a concern to the young man," says Marty Schottenheimer, who became coach in midseason last year. "He has a presence about him. It's probably easier for me to predict where he will be in three or four years than where he will be in six weeks."

Kosar says he feels the pressure and does not find it easy deflecting it away from his 6-foot-5, 210-pound made-for-the-NFL-pocket physique. "(The pressures) are there anyway, so there is no need worrying about 'What if they weren't there?' " he says. "I've heard everything under the sun about what might happen to me (in the future). The coaches will make that decision."

The Browns insist they won't rush Kosar. "Under no circumstance will I ever mandate when he will start, no matter how much money I pay him," Modell says. "(And) there will be no pressure to play him for commercial reasons, either."

At present, Schottenheimer says the Browns' starting quarterback is Paul McDonald, the left-hander who was sacked 40 times in the first eight games of last season. The offensive line remains a concern.

Furthermore, with the Browns having given up a third-round draft pick to acquire Detroit's Gary Danielson, most observers of the team feel that McDonald will be sent packing and Danielson will be the starting Cleveland quarterback on opening day, letting Kosar break in slowly.

"I may be the second-best quarterback on this team and still be the starter at the first game of the season," says Danielson, entering his ninth NFL year. "It will be something of a tough situation playing in front of a crowd favorite who everyone wants to see play."

The first thing you'll most often hear about Kosar around these Browns is, "Yeah, Bernie may not be that mobile, but his release is quick and did this guy get his doctorate in football or something?" Danielson says he is amazed at how during team meetings Kosar has written the same questions in the margin of his notebook as Danielson.

Ask if he will be to Kosar as Miami's Don Strock is to Dan Marino, and Danielson says, "I don't want to be his mentor. I'm not smart enough to instruct Bernie. I'll help him if he needs help, but I don't think he'll need help."

Kosar did not arrive in Cleveland in the standard way. He caused a ruckus by graduating in three years, something the National Football League wasn't ready to deal with. Plus, since he was redshirted one season, Kosar still had two years of college eligibility left. This gave Kosar his own option play: try for the Heisman Trophy or try for the big bucks.

Minnesota wanted Kosar and gambled, trading its first- and second-round picks to Houston for the Oilers' No. 1 pick, which happened to be the second overall in the draft. Houston already had signed quarterback Warren Moon last year and didn't feel a need to get Kosar, too. Buffalo had used the No. 1 pick to sign defensive end Bruce Smith, so it appeared the Vikings had a lock on Kosar.

The Browns had other ideas. Modell traded his No. 1 and No. 3 draft picks in 1985 and his No. 1 and No. 6 picks in 1986 to Buffalo in exchange for the Bills' top selection in the supplemental draft. This is a draft used only in special circumstances, such as when Illinois quarterback Dave Wilson was ruled ineligible for another year of college ball after the NFL draft in 1981.

Two weeks after the Browns made this chancy trade, Commissioner Pete Rozelle gave Kosar the choice as to which draft lottery he wanted to be placed in. Kosar wrote to Rozelle saying he would feel quite comfortable in the supplementary draft, thank you.

To be sure, Kosar is a smart cookie. He took 18 course units last spring and six more in the summer to graduate with a double major in economics and finance. Several NFL executives criticized Kosar for botching teams' draft plans and for being selfish in making his late declaration for the pros.

With the spoils in his back pocket, Modell feels differently, saying, "Bernie didn't major in Ballroom Dancing 1. He earned the luxury of taking his time in making the decision . . . To hell with those NFL front-office jerks who don't agree."

Kosar is a native of Boardman, Ohio, and wanted to play for the team he grew up following. That was the Browns, of course, the team with Leroy Kelly in the '60s and Cardiac Kid specialist Brian Sipe in the '70s and early '80s.

Kosar says he has heard nearly every criticism imaginable.

"First, it was that I sold (the University of) Miami out. Then it was that I'm playing games whether I'm coming out (of college) or not; then I was using some people and I was using the school, using Minnesota (Vikings). Then I was using Cleveland as leverage to get more money from Minnesota. Just junk like that.

"I didn't want to go to court. I wanted to come out of this whole thing cleanly. I didn't want to cause a stir. If I had ended up in Minnesota, that would have been fine. I could have lived with that."

The Browns players don't seem to mind the big money payoff to Kosar. All-pro tight end Ozzie Newsome, who has caught 89 passes in each of the past two seasons, says, "You look at the New York Giants. Now (linebacker) Lawrence Taylor is probably the most dominant defensive player in the league, but when (quarterback) Phil Simms went down, the Giants went down. You have to have the quarterback."

Ready to leave the nonplayoff arctic, Modell adds, "It's like the wine commercial: 'I will not play Bernie Kosar before his time.' "