EDEN PRAIRIE (AP) -- The financially strapped Minnesota Vikings are keeping Pro Bowl punter Mitch Berger, whose services could be even more essential next year with all the talent they've unloaded this offseason.
Berger signed a five-year, $6 million deal Wednesday that includes a $1.65 million signing bonus, a record for an NFL punter. The total value of the deal ties Cleveland's Chris Gardocki as the richest ever signed by a punter.
Berger was the Vikings' top offseason priority not only because of his booming punts and kickoffs that helped them lead the league in opponents' starting field position, but because they were unable to afford their other high-profile free agents.
The Vikings, who began the offseason $20 million over the $62.17 million salary cap, waived several decorated veterans such as 11-time Pro Bowl guard Randall McDaniel, lost Pro Bowl center Jeff Christy to Tampa Bay without much of a fight and told quarterback Jeff George to seek other offers.
After Randall Cunningham refused to restructure his deal, the Vikings got receiver Cris Carter to redo his deal to create enough cap room to sign Berger, the first Vikings punter ever to play in the Pro Bowl.
Cunningham's refusal to help out the Vikings -- he was benched just 5 1/2 games into his new $28 million deal last season -- means he might be the next one cut loose, leaving second-year pro Daunte Culpepper as the starting quarterback.
That could lead to a whole lot of punting in 2000 for Berger, who had an average of 45.4 yards and a net average of 38.4 last season.
Agent Tom Mills said Berger was flattered that he was the Vikings' top priority.
''He knew he wasn't second fiddle to anybody and that was appreciated,'' Mills said. ''But given the economics, he knew they couldn't afford to keep some main guys.''
Mills said the Vikings agreed to the bonus Wednesday morning, stopping the free agent from boarding an evening flight for Kansas City. Berger also canceled visits to Tampa Bay and Green Bay.
''Had he taken some of those trips, there was a possibility of a higher offer, but in the grand scheme staying in Minnesota and indoors in a dome was very influential in his decision,'' Mills said.
Mills said Berger will make $450,000 next season, $500,000 in 2001 and $1 million in each of the remaining three years of the contract, plus $200,000 spring roster bonuses in each of the final two seasons.
Berger made $435,000 last year in the final season of a two-year $900,000 contract he signed in 1998.
Mills and his father, Jack, also represent McDaniel, who is attending a wedding in Arizona before deciding whether to retire or entertain offers.
Christy said he would try to entice McDaniel to join him in Tampa.
''Randall's not going to go just anywhere,'' Mills said. ''He would have to go to a team that could win a Super Bowl in a year or two because he doesn't have many years left. And that's why Tampa's attractive.''
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