Five-year deal includes $4.25M signing bonus

Flush with plenty of salary cap room, the Minnesota Vikings put some of it to good use Tuesday night, reaching a contract agreement with Jim Kleinsasser, ESPN.com has learned.

One of the NFL's best but still underrated tight ends, Kleinsasser will sign a five-year contract worth about $15 million. The deal includes a $4.25 million signing bonus and comes just hours before the standout tight end would have become a free agent.

Kleinsasser, 27, had been designated a "transition" free agent in 2003, but the Vikings did not want to use that marker on him for a second straight year. The team has been negotiating with agent Jimmy Sexton toward a long-term deal and had made the retention of Kleinsasser a high priority. Kleinsasser's contract makes the five-year veteran among the highest-paid players at his position.

Sexton and his client were prudent, too, in understanding that Kleinsasser's unique talents made him a critical player for Minnesota to keep.

Kleinsasser certainly would have been the top unrestricted free-agent tight end had he gone onto the open market, and several suitors already were lining up. But the role he plays in the Vikings offense is well-suited to his skills.

An improving receiver, Kleinsasser's totals in the passing game have improved in every season, and he posted career-bests in catches (46), receiving yards (401) and touchdowns (four) in 2003. In five seasons, Kleinsasser has 123 catches for 1,090 yards and five touchdowns.

But it is in the running game where Kleinsasser is key to the Minnesota offense.

The former North Dakota star is a strong in-line blocker and also seals the edge well on the sweep. Scouts from other teams have noted in the past two years that if the Vikings ever lost Kleinsasser, they would have to significantly overhaul their blocking scheme.

A second-round choice in the 1999 draft, Kleinsasser played some at fullback and H-back earlier in his career but has more recently been used in the conventional tight end role.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.