By Steve Silverman
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The MLB All-Star Game, which will be played on Tuesday night, has always been symbolic for me. No, not for the once-ferocious, now-flaccid war between the American and National Leagues, nor for the start of final half of the baseball season.
To me, it represents the start of the NFL season. After the MLB All-Star Game is in the books, it’s just a matter of days before training camp opens, players report and the hitting begins in earnest.
It seems that the offseason maneuvering and roster manipulation has been completed, but there are moves to be made.
There are still several free agents out there who have the ability to help franchises win games. They may be coming back from injuries and have to prove they are healthy, but there’s still a chance for teams to sign difference-makers.
Here’s a look at five of the most impactful free agents still available:
Cornerback Chris Houston, ex-Detroit Lion – Houston had a brutal season last year for the Lions, but there was a reason for that. He had a severe toe injury that prevented him from cutting and accelerating the way he normally does. He was beaten for a number of big plays, and the Lions released him even though he had four years remaining on a five-year contract.
Houston had surgery in the offseason and there is every reason to think he can return to top form this year. He is a solid, instinctive cover corner who can stay with No. 2 receivers and some No. 1s as well. Houston had five interceptions in 2011, and he returned two of them for touchdowns. Houston, 29, has an opportunity to be a game-changing player as soon as he returns to full health.
He should get his chance when he’s signed early in training camp by a team that is looking to improve its secondary.
Offensive tackle Eric Winston, ex-Arizona Cardinal – Winston has become a well-traveled player, having spent six years with the Saints and one each with the Chiefs and Cardinals. He is not going to win a spot in the Pro Bowl, but he is a solid and functional tackle who should be able to man a spot on the right side.
At 6-foot-6 and 305 pounds, Winston is a strong man who understands blocking tackles and can handle power rushers. He may have some problems with the speed guys, but he has the stature and experience to get the job done for one or two seasons for any team looking for consistency and depth on the offensive line.
Look for Winston to sign shortly after any team suffers a serious offensive-line injury during the early part of training camp.
Offensive guard Travelle Wharton, ex-Carolina Panther – The word on Wharton is that he is leaning towards retirement after 10 years in the league.
However, the belief here is that teams will be making frequent calls during training camp and that the hard sell will begin sometime after the third preseason game when teams have to get serious about securing their starting lineup. While today’s camps are not the demanding, hard-hitting and energy-sapping events they were 15 years ago, no veteran offensive lineman enjoys his time in training camp.
If Wharton decides he wants to play, he can avoid training camp – or at least the majority of it – and then sign with a needy team. If Wharton puts the word out that he will play in 2014, he should be highly sought after because he had an excellent season for the Panthers last year.
Placekicker Rob Bironas, ex-Tennessee Titan – The Titans were not unhappy with Bironas when they cut him at the end of last season. It was simply a salary-cap move.
That’s what many middle-of-the-pack teams do with their placekickers when they are looking to free up cash. However, there will come a moment in training camp when one or two teams realize that they are in trouble in the placekicking department, and they will make a big effort to bring Bironas into camp.
Bironas made 25 of 29 FG attempts last year, and his 86.2 percentage was normal for his career. He has made 85.7 percent of the FG attempts he has taken, and he hasn’t been below 80 percent since the 2006 season.
Wide receiver Santonio Holmes, ex-New York Jet – Jets fans are raising their eyebrows about this selection because Holmes has played in just 15 games over the last two years and he is not a great locker-room presence.
But if you want to write him off, you would be making a mistake. He has a proven track record in big games, and if he was with the right quarterback, Holmes could get back on track.
Holmes still has a chance to be a productive No. 2 or 3 receiver. He may no longer be the player who caught 79-1,248-5 for the Steelers in 2009, but he can step in and make a solid contribution. He is still worth a shot for a team that is willing to overlook his uneven personality.
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