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Patriots sign Miller

Ex-Steelers punter given five-year deal

If there was a problem with a Patriots team that went 17-2 last season and won its last 15 games, it was the punting. The Patriots think they've found the solution in former Steeler Josh Miller.

Miller, 33, signed a five-year contract worth about $5 million with New England yesterday. The deal includes a $1 million signing bonus.

Miller, Pittsburgh's punter since 1996, became expendable with the Steelers' signing of ex-Brown Chris Gardocki, and he was released last week. Miller visited Miami and turned down an offer from the Dolphins, who re-signed last year's punter, Matt Turk.

Miller and Patriots coach Bill Belichick met Friday night in Florida (Miller makes his offseason home near Palm Beach). The punter arrived here Sunday night and yesterday met with vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli and special teams coach Brad Seely. According to Miller's agent, Glenn Schwartzman, the Patriots told Miller they also plan for him to hold for kicker Adam Vinatieri.

The left-footed Miller has a career average of 42.9 yards per punt. Last season, he finished seventh in the AFC with a 41.9-yard average and sixth with a 36-yard net average.

He dropped 27 punts inside the 20 last year -- the fourth time in his career he has had that many downed inside the 20. Miller led the league with 34 inside the 20 in 1998 and was second with 34 in 2000.

Miller began his career kicking for the Canadian Football League's Baltimore Stallions. Two seasons north of the border plus eight in Pittsburgh figure to have trained him well to handle the conditions in Foxborough.

The signing of Miller officially ends the Patriots career of Ken Walter. An unrestricted free agent, Walter struggled last season, his third in New England, as he finished second-to-last in the league with a 37.7-yard average. For perspective, Tennessee Pro Bowler Craig Hentrich's net average was 37.8.

Walter, an unrestricted free agent, replaced Lee Johnson early in the 2001 season. The former Panther also gained Vinatieri's trust as a holder. But he failed to keep it together last year, several times shanking punts in key situations.

In what some felt was a psychological tactic by Belichick, Walter was waived Dec. 2 and replaced with rookie Brooks Barnard, who punted 10 times, including four inside the 20, against the Dolphins Dec. 7. The Patriots re-signed Walter Dec. 12, and he placed nine of his final 13 regular-season punts inside the 20.

Schwartzman said part of what attracted Miller to New England was the prospect of winning a Super Bowl. Miller has kicked in two AFC Championship games, including Pittsburgh's loss to the Patriots Jan. 27, 2002.

"He's gotten to the championship game, and everyone wants to get there [to the Super Bowl]," Schwartzman said. "He's excited about the opportunity up there to continue the tradition they've got going and to contribute to the continued success of the Patriots."

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