Louis Lipps never thought much of his chances of going to college, much less becoming a wide receiver in the NFL. "I grew up in an itty-bitty country town," says Lipps, who's from Reserve, La. (pop. 7,288), 39 miles southeast of New Orleans. "It's not much more than a grocery store, an auto-parts shop and nothing but woods all around. You can pass through without knowing it's there. I figured nobody would ever find me."
But when Lipps scored five touchdowns while playing split-end, and also was a standout defensive back and kick returner for East St. John High School, he caught the attention of Southern Mississippi, which gave him a scholarship in 1980. "That probably saved me from a career at the checkout counter," Lipps says. And last May the Pittsburgh Steelers uncovered Lipps, a no-name, skill-position player in a draft loaded with big guys, not-so-big-names and very little marquee value. To the Steelers, Lipps's 91 receptions as a Golden Eagle plus his 4.4 40s and 38-inch vertical leaps seemed promising. And, at 5'10", 190 pounds, he figured to hold his own against any defensive back who tried to jam him at the line. So Pittsburgh drafted Lipps in the first round—the 23rd pick overall—and now he's odds-on to become NFL Rookie of the Year.
Lipps has scored 10 TDs and, among rookies in the AFC, is first in receptions (39) and second in yards per catch average (18.7). He also runs back punts, a task he so enjoys that he has called only one fair catch in 48 attempts; he leads the NFL in punt returns with 580 yards and is closing in on the NFL mark of 666 yards set last season by Raider Greg Pruitt. He also leads NFL rookies in all-purpose yardage with 1,382 (71 yards rushing on three reverses, 731 receiving, plus his return yardage). He's the only player this season to have scored touchdowns three ways: rushing, receiving and returning punts (his 76-yarder against Cincinnati on Oct. 1 is the longest in the AFC this season). "This is a bit overwhelming," Lipps says. "I never expected any of this."
Lipps is the pick of the litter, but what about the rest of the first-round picks? "It's proving to be what we said it would—not an illustrious group, but a solid one," says Ernie Accorsi, the Cleveland Browns' assistant to the president. Buffalo general manager Terry Bledsoe is more succinct. "There were a lot of big guys in the last draft—big guys don't play as soon as little guys."
Who are the best, the brightest and the biggest busts so far from the Class of 1984? Here are some notable categories:
LOOK MA, No HANDS: Irving Fryar, the overall No. 1 pick from Nebraska, mainly returns punts for the Patriots, who expected him to be a big-play receiver. Hampered by a cracked rib in the preseason and a dislocated shoulder, Fryar occasionally has displayed butterfingers when he's been used as a receiver.
THERE'S THE BEEF: Dean Steinkuhler, the No. 2 pick overall, also from Nebraska, started at right tackle from Day 1 with the Oilers and was proving that he could pass-block, something you rarely have to do as a Husker, when he tore ligaments in his right knee on Nov. 4 and was lost for the season.
MOST LIKELY TO SUCCEED: Eagle wide receiver Kenny Jackson, the No. 4 from Penn State, showed his speed (an 83-yard TD reception) against the Giants Oct. 21, but one quarter later he was put out for five games with a separated shoulder.
IT'S ALL IN THE FAMILY: No. 5 pick Bill Maas, a defensive tackle at Pitt, was moved to nose tackle by the Chiefs and has five sacks, despite operating for the past six weeks with a hairline fracture of the left leg. He's married to Cindi Marino, sister of the Dolphin quarterback, "but that doesn't get me anything—no tickets, no publicity."
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING: Linebacker Ricky Hunley, No. 7 from Arizona, couldn't get the price he asked from the Bengals and ultimately cost Denver a reported $3.2 million for four years. So far, he has played only on special teams, but the Broncos still think they got a deal.
STANDS OUT IN THE CROWD: Defensive tackle Rick Bryan, No. 9 from Oklahoma, is a bright spot in a dreadful Falcon season. Line coach Dan Sekanovich says, "When you're against him, you better pack a lunch, because you're going to fight out there all day."
TITANIC AWARD: Dolphin linebacker Jackie Shipp, the No. 14 from Oklahoma, may turn out to be the bust of '84. When it comes to pass defense, he's sunk. And Don Shula's playbook baffles him. "The main thing I remember about my college playbook is that it was filled with dorm rules," Shipp says.
HIT 'EM AGAIN, HARDER!: Don Rogers, the No. 18 from UCLA, qualifies as the AFC's defensive rookie of the year. His aggressiveness (53 solo tackles at free safety) is a big reason the Browns are No. 2 against the pass.
A STAR IS BORN: Buffalo shocked the world, and particularly the people in South Bend, when it made running back Greg Bell (Notre Dame), the 26th pick of Round 1. Bell's best year at Notre Dame was when he rushed for 512 yards as a sophomore. During the next two seasons a broken right leg, a sprained right ankle and tendinitis limited him to a combined total of 292 yards on 61 carries. Shortly after the draft Bell's right ankle was put in a cast equipped with a stimulator. The bone tissue apparently responded to the high-tech treatment. So far Bell has rushed for 998 yards.
As for the lower rounds, one sleeper has emerged: Green Bay safety Tom Flynn, the 126th pick overall from Pitt. Too slow, the scouts agreed. But Flynn is tied for fourth in the NFC in interceptions, with six. Add 63 tackles, seven deflected passes and three fumble recoveries, and you've got the NFC's top defensive rookie of '84. Flynn admits that pro football has been overwhelming on occasion. "Against Dallas," says Flynn, "Doug Cosbie came across a seam, and as he caught the ball I hit him around the chest. You can't hit those 240-pounders so high! I got bounced on my head and on my butt."
Welcome to the NFL, Class of '84.