Sharper stays in NFC North

It didn't take two-time Pro Bowl safety Darren Sharper -- released only two days ago by the Green Bay Packers -- long to find a new address. And the eight-year veteran didn't have to even leave the division in which he has played his entire career.

Continuing an emphasis on upgrading a defense that has been a problem area for the last several seasons, the Minnesota Vikings Saturday signed Sharper to a four-year contract. Financial details were not immediately available, but it is believed that the contract includes a signing bonus of at least $4 million.

The deal came quickly. Sharper didn't arrive for a visit with the Vikings until Friday evening, but both sides acted quickly because of the degree of mutual interest.

"Darren is thrilled to be a part of what is becoming a dramatically improved Minnesota defense," agent Joel Segal told ESPN.com. "He gets to stay in the division, where he is familiar with all the receivers, and he gets to play with a team that he feels has potential to be very special. Within hours of his release, there was interest from several teams, and several visits scheduled for him. But his first visit turned out to be his last visit, and that is a testament to the Vikings people and how aggressively they pursued him. He feels very much at home with those people."

Sharper becomes the fourth new starter in less than two weeks for the Vikings defense, which statistically ranked 29th in the league in 2004.

"He's a great playmaker and has been a nemesis of ours for years," Vikings vice president of football operations Rob
Brzezinski said. "He's an outstanding leader and will be a
tremendous addition to our defense."

The Vikings acquired linebacker Napoleon Harris in the trade that sent wide receiver Randy Moss to the Oakland Raiders. They then signed defensive tackle Pat Williams of Buffalo and cornerback Fred Smoot of Washington as unrestricted free agents. Smoot and Williams were both among the premier free agents at their respective positions.

Landing the versatile Sharper further bolsters what should be an excellent secondary unit, with he and Smoot joining standout cornerback Antoine Winfield, who was added in free agency a year ago. Even with the addition of Sharper, the Vikings may still consider a trade that would bring them Jacksonville strong safety Donovin Darius.

Minnesota officials might now turn their attention, however, to offense. The club has made a contract offer to unrestricted free agent wide receiver Plaxico Burress, and the former Pittsburgh Steelers star is seriously considering the proposal. A deal could come over the weekend.

Unable to continue carrying his lofty salary cap charge and unwilling to pay him a $2.6 million roster bonus that was due Friday, the Packers on Thursday released Sharper, making him a free agent. It took the Vikings less than 2 hours to arrange a visit.

The Packers clearly felt the 29-year-old's performance had declined, but several clubs besides the Vikings still held him in high regard.

One league personnel director, citing the acquisition of aging safety Rodney Harrison by the New England Patriots two years ago, insisted Sharper can still make an impact. He is not as physical a hitter as Harrison but possesses better range.

Sharper is coming off a difficult 2004 season, one in which his productivity clearly was down, but also a campaign in which he played most of the year with a partial tear in the posterior cruciate ligament of his left knee. Despite the injury, Sharper missed only one game and three starts, and still led the Packers with four interceptions.

The former William & Mary star, a second-round choice in 1997, has played both of the safety positions, and his versatility was always considered a plus by Green Bay defensive coordinators who could game-plan around his myriad skills. Earlier in his career, Sharper was a threat against the run, on the blitz and in pass coverage. Even if that skill-set has waned a bit, he will still be a notable upgrade for the Minnesota secondary.

In 121 appearances, including 105 starts, Sharper has 610 tackles, 36 interceptions, 79 passes defensed, six sacks and six forced fumbles. He had at least one interception in every season but 1998 and, since 1999, has never had fewer than three pickoffs. Four times in his career, Sharper posted 80-plus tackles, with a career high of 113 in 1999.

Sharper was named to the NFC Pro Bowl squad following the 2000 and 2002 seasons.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.