It's a reminder that, while much of the free agency buzz will center on stars who are still solidly in their prime, there's plenty of real value in the available talent pool of players on the wrong side of 30.
Dockett is a great example. Yes, he missed the entire 2014 season with a torn ACL. But the season before that -- his 10th in the NFL -- was one of his best. While serving as the catalyst for the league's No. 1 run defense in 2013, he posted 12 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and 17 quarterback hits. That does not sound like a player in decline. Players in his position at his age often let their weight balloon, but Dockett has stayed lean throughout, which will help him stay effective. He's a great run-stopper who also has enough quickness to effectively cause trouble for the quarterback.
The tricky thing, of course, is that veteran players who become available toward the ends of their careers often have to accept much less money than they've been used to. It can be tough for a player to take what amounts to a sizable paycut and still play with the same vim and vigor he's had throughout his career; it takes a special guy to play for 10 cents on the dollar.
With the free agency period coming up fast, I thought I'd pick out the players who will be available and ready to make an impact for whichever organization lands them -- despite being 30 or older. Below is a list of eight such players, ranked according to the likelihood that they'll significantly help a team in 2015:
Age: 30. Birthday: April 15, 1984. NFL seasons: Nine.
If I were a team with a hole at cornerback, I'd definitely give Cromartie a good look. He showed no signs of slowing down in his fourth consecutive 16-game season, contributing the second-highest number of tackles in his career (49) and picking off his usual three passes in his single season with the Arizona Cardinals. He's very long and very athletic and should make an impact on a defense as a solid starter for at least two-plus years.
Age: 33. Birthday: July 11, 1981. NFL seasons: 12.
Johnson, of course, is still technically committed to the Houston Texans for 2015, but his days with the team appear to be all but over, and there's a strong chance he'll hit the open market soon. He'll turn 34 in July, and he's coming off a down season in which he just didn't seem to make the kind of big plays he used to, finishing with 936 yards -- at a near-career-low 11.0 yards per pop -- and three touchdowns. But then, he wasn't exactly working with any top-flight quarterbacks in Houston, either. I think he's a lot like Anquan Boldin, who happens to be a year older and just posted his second consecutive 1,000-yard season: no longer No. 1 material, but someone who can do a good job as a solid No. 2. I can see why the Texans don't want to take the cap hit ($16.1 million in 2015) to keep him around, but the bottom line is, Johnson is a great character guy with good size and an extensive history of success.
Age: 32. Birthday: Oct. 5, 1982. NFL seasons: 10.
Cole, who was released by the Philadelphia Eagles this week, has missed one game in the past three years (with a hand injury that required surgery) and is still pretty fast, even if he's not as fast as he once was. His best position just might be with his hand on the ground as a pass rusher; he's logged 85.5 sacks in 10 years -- second only to Reggie White's 124 in Eagles history -- including 14.5 over the past two. Cole might not be a three-down guy, but he can definitely help someone as a spot player.
Age: 32. Birthday: Dec. 16, 1982. NFL seasons: 10.
Though Rolle seemed to fall off a bit in his fifth season with the Giants, he did rack up 87 tackles, which is pretty good, along with nine pass breakups. I think he's the type who just really loves football and will want to play as long as he can. The former eighth overall pick will never be the fastest in the world, but his high levels of intelligence and competitive fire make up for that. He's very, very smart; in fact, Rolle is kind of like Charles Woodson, in the way that he'll help get his teammates lined up right and guide them on what they're supposed to do in pass defense. He'd be a great addition on a team with a young secondary.
Age: 31. Birthday: May 14, 1983. NFL seasons: 10.
Gore is an interesting one. He's definitely old for a running back -- but he also recorded his fourth consecutive 1,000-yard season in 2014, putting an extremely strong exclamation point on the year with a pair of monster games (158 yards on 6.1 yards per carry against the Chargers in Week 16 and 144 yards on 5.8 yards per carry against the Cardinals in Week 17) for a 49ers team that had already been eliminated from the playoffs. He's exactly the kind of guy you're looking for when it comes to these types of players; he thrives on football and he thrives on competition, to the point that I think he'll have to practically be forced off the field when it's time for him to retire. The years, miles and odds are against him, but I think he's still got what it takes to be a real factor in the game.
Age: 31. Birthday: Jan. 6, 1984. NFL seasons: Eight.
Free is a swing man who played well for the Cowboys' surging offensive line last year, though he did miss a total of fivegames with injuries. In fact, 2014 was probably the best year of the longtime starter's career thus far. He's a steady player who contributed to a winning effort, and I think he'll give at least two years or so of solid production to whichever team lands him.
Age: 30. Birthday: March 2, 1985. NFL seasons: Nine.
Bush's recent release by the Lions was preceded by one of his worst pro seasons; he finished 2014 with 297 rushing yards and 253 receiving yards, both the second-worst totals of his career. He did battle an ankle injury for much of the year, playing in just 11 games. Still, that output is a considerable dropoff from 2013, when he racked up 1,512 total yards (1,006 rushing, 506 receiving) and seven total scores. There's the potential that he can get back into peak shape and return to his old capabilities, but at this point, there's a risk that he'll be nothing more than a spot player, maybe someone who helps out returning punts. The question is, will someone who's had a high-profile career like Bush's be happy filling a role like that?
*Age: 33. Birthday: May 1, 1981. NFL seasons: 11. *
Welker isn't the 100-reception-per-year guy he once was, but -- unless he decides to retire -- I think he can still offer a team something. Health issues are obviously a concern, especially at his age, but I think he can still come in and make the clutch catch when needed. It's important to remember that the players on a roster often won't view the acquisition of an older veteran in the same way that outside observers do, especially one as established as Welker. They don't worry about statistical declines; they just get excited. Hey, we got Wes Welker! When I was with the Cowboys, we did this with Lance Alworth, who had seen his best days when we traded for him in 1971. But the feeling around the team, was, They're trying to help us win, and we went on to capture Super Bowl VI, with Alworth even contributing a touchdown catch.