Pats ink Miller and Kittner as QB insurance

In a move that could provide the New England Patriots with the experienced backup quarterback their roster is lacking, ESPN.com has learned that the Super Bowl champions on Thursday reached a contract agreement with free agent Jim Miller.

Miller, 33, did not play in 2003 after being released by the Tampa Bay Bucs in camp. He signed a one-year contract for a base salary of $660,000.

The caveat to adding Miller to a depth chart that doesn't really have a proven veteran behind starter Tom Brady, the two-time Super Bowl most valuable player: Miller is still rehabilitating from offseason surgery to his right (throwing) shoulder, and he might not be fully recovered until just before the start of the regular season.

New England officials decided, however, it is in their best interest to sign Miller now and bring him to training camp. While his physical activities will be limited, Miller will sit in on meetings and attend practices, providing him considerable time to mentally assimilate the Patriots offense.

The Patriots will then make a determination, once Miller is ready to throw, on whether his shoulder is sufficiently rehabilitated to permit him to play in 2004. It is projected that Miller should be able to throw around Sept. 1. New England opens the season on Sept. 9, at home against Indianapolis, a prime time rematch of the 2003 AFC championship game and the first regular-season game leaguewide.

In addition to Miller, the Patriots on Thursday signed former Atlanta quarterback Kurt Kittner, a two-year veteran who has already been released by three teams this spring. The former Illinois star, who started four games for Atlanta in 2003, was released by the Falcons, Bengals and Giants, and is a long-shot to make the roster.

The current quarterback depth chart, behind Brady, includes youngsters Rohan Davey and Kliff Kingsbury, and they have just nine regular-season pass attempts between them.

A fourth-round pick in '02, Davey was named the most valuable offensive player in NFL Europe this spring, and appears ready to take the next step, but has appeared in only three games. The former LSU star has completed four of nine pass attempts. Kingsbury was chosen in the sixth round last year but the onetime Texas Tech standout spent his entire rookie season on injured reserve.

Damon Huard, who served as Brady's backup the past three years, signed with Kansas City as an unrestricted free agent last month.

New England is taking a similar tack with Miller that Tampa Bay did last spring. The Bucs signed Miller knowing that he was coming off ankle surgery and that he had some shoulder problems. But coach Jon Gruden felt Miller was such a knowledgeable player and solid team leader that, even if he wasn't 100 percent physically until a month or two into the regular season, he was still worth the gamble.

Unfortunately, for Miller, his physical progress was slower than anticipated, and Tampa Bay officials felt their quarterback depth chart was good enough.

Miller's best season was in 2001, when he started 13 games and led the Chicago Bears to a 13-3 record, and the franchise's first division title since 1990. The former Michigan State star has appeared in 38 games and logged 27 starts in stints with Pittsburgh (1994-96), Jacksonville (1997), Atlanta (1997) and Chicago (1998-2002).

He has completed 610 of 1,046 passes for 6,387 yards, with 36 touchdown passes, 31 interception and a passer rating of 75.2.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.