Breaking from their recent history of employing young placement specialists who worked for minimum wages, the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday signed unrestricted free agent kicker Mike Vanderjagt, a colorful eight-year veteran who is the NFL's career leader in field goal percentage.
League sources confirmed for ESPN.com that Vanderjagt, who arrived in Dallas on Wednesday to visit with Cowboys coaches and team officials, signed a three-year contract.
The contract can be worth a little more than $6 million. It includes a signing bonus of $2.5 million and base salaries of $810,000 each for 2006-2007 and $1 million for 2008. There are workout bonuses of $90,000 each in 2006-2007 and of $100,000 for 2008, with a roster bonus of $100,000 due in the spring of 2008. Vanderjagt can earn an annual bonus of $200,000 based on field goal percentage.
Adding a kicker of Vanderjagt's profile and price range is out of character for the Cowboys. Under owner Jerry Jones, the team's preference has been to develop its own kickers, often undrafted college free agents, and to invest very little in the position. But the Cowboys went through three kickers in 2005, converted only 21 of 27 field goal tries, and suffered all season at the position.
Dallas lost three games in 2005 by three points or fewer, and that may have swayed the team's thinking in pursuing a more proven and dependable placement specialist.
In Vanderjagt, the Cowboys are getting a kicker whose last effort, a missed 46-yard field goal attempt in the Indianapolis Colts' divisional-round loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, is not indicative of his career in the league. The veteran kicker, who began his professional career in the CFL after playing at West Virginia University, has never scored fewer than 104 points and has averaged 124.3 points.
Vanderjagt, who turns 36 next week, has converted 217 of 248 field goals, and that 87.5 percent success rate is the best in league history. He has also made 344 of 346 extra point tries.
"Mike was tremendous for us in the time that I was here," said Colts coach Tony Dungy, who just finished his fourth season in Indianapolis. "He made some kicks that won divisions for us, that won big games, overtime games, and I never thought that he was going to miss when we sent him out."
The only shortcoming in Vanderjagt's game are his kickoffs, on which he has averaged 60.2 yards. The Colts employed a separate kickoff specialist to handle those chores the past two seasons. Vanderjagt has insisted he can kick off, however, and it remains to be seen how the Cowboys deal with that element.
Billy Cundiff has been the Cowboys' primary kicker the past four seasons, making 60 of 82 field goals (73 percent) in 53 games. He was released after hurting his leg in training camp but returned in November for six games after Jose Cortez and Shaun Suisham kicked.
But Cundiff was inconsistent, making a team-record 56-yarder against Detroit in his first game back, then missing a 34-yard tiebreaking kick in the fourth quarter four days later against
Denver, the Thanksgiving Day game the Cowboys lost in overtime.
Cundiff was 5-for-8 and cut before the final game, and Suisham
returned for the season finale.
In 2003, Cundiff tied an NFL record with seven field goals in a
Monday night victory at the New York Giants.
Since Rafael Septien set most of the team's kicking records from 1978-86, there has been a long line of kickers through Dallas, including Richie Cunningham, Chris Boniol, Eddie Murray and high school teacher Tim Seder, among others. Cundiff was the only one who stayed more than three seasons.
Also Thursday, Dallas signed L.P. Ladouceur, a second-year defensive end who played in 13 games on special teams for the Cowboys last season.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.