Now that the 2017 season is in the books following Sunday's dramatic Super Bowl, it's time to fully turn attention to 2018. Here are some exact dates and some estimated ones of importance for Panthers fans over the next seven months before the 2018 regular season kicks off:
February 20 – This is the first day (March 6 is the deadline) for teams to designate one franchise or transitional player – a tool that prevents a player from hitting the free agent market in March. Typically, the tagged player either signs a long-term deal before the mid-July deadline (July 16 this year) or plays the upcoming season under the financial terms of the tag. The Panthers have tagged seven players over the years, including last year when defensive tackle Kawann Short signed a contract extension soon after – the fourth time that has happened. Two others (Julius Peppers in 2009 and Jordan Gross in 2008) played under the tag, while the Panthers took the rare action of rescinding the tag on Josh Norman in 2016, allowing him to immediately become a free agent.
Guard Andrew Norwell and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei could be considerations this year, but either would be a pricey proposition.
February 27-March 5 – 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 as the team takes an important step toward figuring out who it will select at No. 24 overall and beyond.
March 12-14 - 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 to set the stage for free agency. For the Panthers, this period last year set the stage for a two-day frenzy at the outset of free agency that included the rapid-fire signings of defensive end Julius Peppers and left tackle Matt Kalil.
March 14 – This is the day the NFL officially turns the page from the 2017 season to 2018, 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. The first two full days of 2017 were unprecedented for the Panthers, who signed six players after historically opting to make their mark more methodically in the weeks that follow.
March 25-28 – The NFL's Annual Meeting descends on Orlando. The Panthers are in the midst of an ownership change and there's no telling where that will stand when the owners come together. You can, however, always count on some changes in form of game rules coming from this gathering.
Mid-April – In the vicinity of tax day, the NFL will offer a break of sorts by releasing the schedule, allowing fans to circle dates on their calendar that coincide with the list of 2018 opponents. Counting the preseason in the mix, the Panthers will face the reigning Super Bowl champs for a remarkable 19th consecutive season when they visit the Eagles. Players can start prepping for games as a collective unit on April 16, when teams with a returning head coach are eligible to begin the league's nine-week offseason workout program.
April 26-28 – Finally, the NFL Draft arrives, moving to the Cowboys' stadium following a well-received appearance in Philadelphia. The Panthers have eight picks in the seven-round draft, adding third- and seventh-rounders from the Bills in the Kelvin Benjamin trade while not having a fourth-round selection thanks to the 2016 trade for punter Andy Lee. Carolina isn't expected to claim any of the 32 compensatory picks the league will announce in February as a result of losses via free agency.
May 3 – This is the final day for teams to exercise the fifth-year option on their 2015 first-round draft picks. For the Panthers, the player in question is linebacker Shaq Thompson. The Collective Bargaining Agreement signed in 2011 called for four-year contractd for all drafted rookies with a team option for a fifth year for players picked in the first round. The Panthers have used it every year to date - Cam Newton in 2014, Luke Kuechly in 2015, Star Lotulelei in 2016 and Kelvin Benjamin in 2017. May 4-7 or May 11-14 –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 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 2018 NFL season in effect starts with training camp. The Panthers and Wofford College have an agreement in place through 2019, which would be Carolina's 25th consecutive summer spent in sultry Spartanburg.
Aug. 2 – The annual Hall of Fame Game that christens the preseason remains on Thursday for the second consecutive year. This year's matchup hasn't been tdetermined. Carolina's lone appearance in the game – which adds a fifth game to the participants' preseason slate – was in 1995 against the Jaguars in both franchises' inaugural season.
Aug. 9-12 – For the 30 teams not in the Hall of Fame Game, this is the window for their first of four preseason games. The preseason schedule traditionally is announced shortly before the regular season schedule.
Sept. 6 – Roughly seven months removed from the Super Bowl, the season starts for real, traditionally with the champs playing host. The Panthers are on Philadelphia's home slate, but the Eagles' docket is rich with matchups that probably make more sense – NFC playoff victims Minnesota and Atlanta among them.