Here are some exact dates and some estimated ones of importance for Panthers fans over the next six months before the 2017 regular season kicks off:
February 11 – The first of five NFL Regional Combines will be held at the Seattle Seahawks' practice facility. The regional combines cater to draft-eligible players not invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, and a sixth regional combine is designed for unemployed vets and is by invitation only. The NFL took a snapshot of the regional combines' impact back in Week 13 and found there to be 76 former participants on NFL rosters since the event began in 2012, including 24 from the 2016 combines. Panthers tight end Scott Simonson got his start at a regional combine.
February 15 – This is the first day teams can designate one franchise or transitional player (but not both). The deadline for doing so is March 1. The Panthers designated potential unrestricted free agent cornerback Josh Norman for the franchise tag last year, and the sides had until July 15 to sign him to a long-term deal or have Norman play under the tag. But when Norman had yet to sign the tag in mid-April, the Panthers made the rare decision to rescind the tag and allow him to become a free agent. This year's top player under consideration for the tag is defensive tackle Kawann Short.
February 23-March 6 – The NFL Scouting Combine takes place in Indianapolis. Fans get to see the NFL Draft's top prospects run and jump around, but behind-the-scenes interviews and physicals are arguably the more important happenings. As always, Panthers.com will be there throughout four days of player interviews with the media, and head coach Ron Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman are expected to speak as well.
March 7-9 - In the days leading up to the new league year, teams have the opportunity to enter into contract negotiations with the agents of potential unrestricted free agents around the league to set the stage for free agency. Last year, the Panthers signed fullback Mike Tolbert to an extension during this period and signed defensive end Charles Johnson. How? Because Tolbert was still a Panther until March 9, and Johnson had been released and was therefore already free to sign with any team – including his "former team."
March 9 – This is the day the NFL officially turns the page from the 2016 season to 2017, with the new league year starting at 4 p.m. Since teams can negotiate with free agents a couple of days ahead of time, the first few hours tend to produce some big-name signings. History shows the Panthers prefer to make their mark more methodically in the weeks that follow.
March 26-29 – The NFL's Annual Meeting descends on Phoenix. This is the most likely time on the calendar for rules changes, and the draft order will be set once and for all with compensatory picks awarded – with the Panthers possibly in line to receive a third-rounder. Panthers.com will be there.
Mid-April – In the vicinity of tax day – history indicates it could fall on April 13 this year - the NFL will offer a break by releasing the schedule, allowing fans to circle dates on their calendar that coincide with the list of 2017 opponents that have already been established. And on April 17, the Panthers are eligible to begin the nine-week offseason workout program.
April 27-29 – Finally, the NFL Draft has arrived, moving to Philadelphia – which hosted the inaugural draft in 1936. The Panthers hold the eighth overall pick, their highest spot since taking linebacker Luke Kuechly at No. 9 in 2012. The Panthers' last seven first-round draft picks, beginning with running back Jonathan Stewart, are all productive if not prolific members of the current roster.
May 5-8 or May 12-15 – The draft picks as well as undrafted rookies and a group of invitees will hit the practice field one of those two weekends for the Panthers' annual rookie minicamp. If history is any indication, a couple of the invited tryouts will be added to the 90-man roster in the days that follow.
Mid-May to mid-June – The offseason workout program kicks into high gear for its final month, with three weeks of Organized Team Activities (OTAs) that resemble training camp practices aside from the absence of live contact. After the 10 OTAs, the program then ends with a three-day minicamp that takes essentially the same form aside from being mandatory. OTAs, like the rest of the offseason program, technically are voluntary but tend to draw virtually perfect attendance.
Late July – The players get about a one-month break before the 2017 NFL season in effect starts with training camp. For the 23rd consecutive summer, the Panthers are set to head to Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., their home away from home for upwards of three weeks.
Aug. 3 – The annual Hall of Fame Game that christens the preseason moves to Thursday night for the first time. This year's matchup hasn't been yet determined. Carolina's lone appearance in the game – which adds a fifth game to the participants' preseason slate – was in 1995 against the Jacksonville Jaguars in both franchises' inaugural season. Check out a classic photo from the occasion here.
Aug. 10-13 – For the 30 teams not in the Hall of Fame Game, this is the window for their first of four preseason games.
Sept. 7 – Roughly seven months removed from the Super Bowl, the season starts for real with a presumptive matchup hosted by the big game winners. Will the league for the second consecutive season have the Super Bowl champions host a rematch with the Falcons set to visit Foxboro sometime next season? If not, the other candidates on New England's home schedule that appear to make the most sense are the Chiefs and – dramatic pause – the Panthers.