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Kick in the teeth for Patriots

Vinatieri agrees in principle with Colts

The bad times continue to roll for the Patriots.

One of the surprise stories of NFL free agency was the tepid response Adam Vinatieri was receiving around the league, which gave rise to the possibility of him staying with New England. But the rival Indianapolis Colts, who gave the boot to Mike Vanderjagt, the most accurate kicker in NFL history, pounced on the opportunity to land Vinatieri, considered the biggest money kicker in NFL history.

The Colts announced last night that they had reached an agreement in principle with Vinatieri. League sources said the issues left to be ironed out are not deal-breakers, and when it is done, the deal will make Vinatieri the highest-paid kicker in league history.

According to sources familiar with the talks, Vinatieri would receive a $3.5 million signing bonus and $7.5 million over the first three years of the contract. The total length of the contract was unclear, though it could be five years.

The deal with the Colts comes shortly after Vinatieri hired Gary Uberstine as his agent to replace the Neil Cornrich group, which has represented him for many years. Until Indianapolis stepped up, Vinatieri had received only what he deemed a declinable offer from the Patriots and nothing but a promise for a top offer from the Green Bay Packers, with whom he visited last week. The Dallas Cowboys had also expressed an interest, but the Colts came out of the blue and essentially got the deal done yesterday.

The Patriots had former Bears and Vikings kicker Paul Edinger in for a visit yesterday. Vanderjagt, who badly missed what would have been a 46-yard field goal attempt in a playoff loss to the Steelers, is still available, too. He is an unrestricted free agent whom the Colts decided not to re-sign.

The Patriots have withstood many defections in the past few years, but Vinatieri was one of their most popular players, perhaps second to Tom Brady with fans. In this offseason, they have also lost Willie McGinest (Browns) and David Givens (Titans), and yesterday the Jets scooped up receiver/returner Tim Dwight (four years, $4.2 million, $750,000 signing bonus).

Vinatieri will be the latest ''core" player signed under Bill Parcells to leave, following McGinest, Ty Law, Lawyer Milloy, Ted Johnson, and Troy Brown (cut recently).

Vinatieri had stuck with Cornrich's agency even after Cornrich was suspended one year by the Players Association for testifying on behalf of General Motors against the estate of former Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas. Agent Jonathan Hurst was overseeing Vinatieri's contract talks, but the kicker became frustrated by what he perceived to be a lack of progress. He replaced Hurst and went with Uberstine at the recommendation of McGinest.

Uberstine negotiated a three-year, $12 million deal -- with bonuses and guarantees of $6 million -- for McGinest after McGinest bcame a salary-cap casualty with the Patriots. Uberstine is currently exploring employment options for Brown; the Jets appear to have an interest.

Three NFL executives indicated yesterday that while teams had no problem setting the market value for other positions, they didn't want to set it for a kicker, even if the kicker is one of the best ever. Apparently, Colts president Bill Polian didn't share that view.

The Packers appeared to be front-runners for Vinatieri and were prepared to make him the highest-paid kicker after allowing their own free agent, Ryan Longwell, to sign a four-year, $8 million deal with a $3 million bonus with the Vikings. But the Packers never got a chance to match or trump Indianapolis's offer, nor apparently did the Patriots.

Vinatieri hit it off with new Packers coach Mike McCarthy in his visit. The kicker also renewed acquaintances with his former agent, Andrew Brandt, now the Packers' vice president who negotiates deals. Everything pointed to a good fit, including the fact that Vinatieri is the best cold-weather kicker in the league. But while dealing with Hurst, the Packers weren't able to pinpoint what Vinatieri wanted in a contract.

Vinatieri has said that he longed for an opportunity to kick in either a warm-weather climate or a dome. He has a home in Celebration, Fla., but no Florida team was interested in him.

The Colts were frustrated by Vanderjagt's attitude the past few years. Just 24 hours after missing the field goal against Pittsburgh, he was giggling with David Letterman on national TV, which didn't sit well with the Colts brass. In the past, Vanderjagt angered teammates such as Peyton Manning with his comments. He once accused Manning of not caring enough.

Also, Vanderjagt turns 36 Friday, and the Colts didn't want to commit long-term to a kicker two years older than Vinatieri.

Vinatieri, who last season surpassed Gino Cappelletti to become the Patriots' all-time leading scorer, has scored 100 or more points in 10 seasons. In 2005, he hit on 20 of 25 field goal attempts. All told, he was 263 of 321 with the Patriots.

The Colts play in the RCA Dome, and Vinatieri has made 37 of 41 career field goals indoors. His only misses have come in Reliant Stadium in Houston, all in the 2003 season (3 of 5 vs. Houston and 1 of 3 vs. Carolina in the Super Bowl). He is a perfect 10 for 10 in Indianapolis.

The Patriots might be taking more hits, too. Starting guard Stephen Neal visited with the Dolphins yesterday and will meet with the Texans today. Offensive lineman Tom Ashworth has drawn interest from several teams, including Seattle.

The Patriots also worked out former Saints special teamer Mel Mitchell.

Mike Reiss of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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