Here are some exact dates and some estimated ones of importance for Panthers fans over the next six-plus months before the 2016 regular season kicks off:
February 13 – The first of five NFL Regional Combines will be held at the Houston Texans practice facility. The regional combines welcome players not invited to the NFL Scouting Combine as well as veterans looking to latch on. Panthers offensive tackle David Foucault and former Carolina tight end Brandon Williams (now with Dolphins) got their start there.
February 16 – 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 tag didn't work out as hoped for the Panthers in 2014 with Greg Hardy, but it has been successfully used by Carolina with offensive linemen Ryan Kalil and Jordan Gross. Many think the Panthers could tag cornerback Josh Norman to assure he's at least locked up for the 2016 season and to give the Panthers the ability to try to reach a long-term contract with him. A player with a franchise tag can sign a long-term contract through July 15 or revert the one-year tag. A player with the more rarely used transitional tag can be signed to a long-term deal through July 22, but others team can make offers to the player throughout the offseason that the team using the tag has the opportunity to match.
February 23-29 – The NFL Scouting Combine convenes. Although just-as-important research is done on draft prospects months and even years before the combine – as well as after these dates at pro days and private workouts – this is far and away the most publicized part of the draft process. As always, Panthers.com will be in Indianapolis throughout four days of media interviews.
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. Last year, the Panthers re-signed defensive tackle Dwan Edwards and quarterback Joe Webb during this period. They also signed wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. and offensive tackle Michael Oher prior to this period. How? Because they were released by their former teams prior to the start of the new league year.
March 9 – This is the day the NFL officially turns the page from the 2015 season to 2016, with the new league year starting at 4 p.m. That hour tends to bring some craziness around the league, with several teams making big splashes by immediately signing big-name free agents they've been negotiating with. While you never know what will happen, the Panthers tend to steer clear of the splashes and usually make their mark in more methodical but no-less-effective ways in the weeks that follow.
March 20-23 – The NFL's Annual Meeting descends on Boca Raton, Fla. There are other owners' meetings throughout the year – including one in Charlotte this year on May 23-25 – but this is the big one. This is the most likely time for rules changes, and the draft order will be set once and for all with compensatory picks awarded. Panthers.com will be there, with interviews with general manager Dave Gettleman and head coach Ron Rivera always a big part of the proceedings.
April 18 – This is the date when teams with returning head coaches are allowed to start their offseason workout program. The Panthers typically have started right around this time, but Rivera has indicated the team might start a bit later this season given the extra work created by the Super Bowl run.
Mid-April – This is when the NFL schedule typically is released. The Panthers already know who they'll play, but this is when they find out when they'll play everybody. Expect multiple primetime games.
April 28-30 – At long last, it's draft time. The NFL Draft will be held in Chicago for the second consecutive year, with the first round Thursday, the second and third rounds Friday and rounds 4-7 Saturday. Immediately after the draft, teams are allowed to begin signing undrafted rookies. Two years ago, the Panthers signed guard Andrew Norwell and wide receiver Philly Brown as undrafted free agents. Last year, they snagged running back Brandon Wegher and safety Dean Marlowe.
May 6-9 or May 13-16 – The draft picks will hit the practice field as Panthers for the first time one of these two weekends, along with undrafted rookies, selected invitees and perhaps a veteran or two on the roster that qualifies to take part. The Panthers have held it on the first weekend the last two years but held it on the second weekend the two years prior.
Mid-May – This is the typical start time for three weeks of Organized Team Activities – better known simply as OTAs - when teams are allowed to shift from limited on-field activities to days that more resemble actual practices. These are technically voluntary but tend to draw almost perfect attendance. It's followed immediately by a mandatory three-day minicamp, after which players head their separate ways until training camp.
Mid-July – It's time to truly get down to business. It's time for training camp. The Panthers will once again head to Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., for upwards of three weeks.
Aug. 7 – Six months to the day since Super Bowl 50, football fans finally get their fix with the annual Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio. This year's matchup is yet to be determined. The Panthers have only played in the game once – in 1995, when they and the Jacksonville Jaguars met in both franchise's inaugural season. The day before in Canton, Kevin Greene will become the second player to have played for the Panthers to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Aug. 11-14 – For the 30 teams not in the Hall of Fame Game, this is the window for their first of four preseason games.
Sept. 8 – The season starts for real with the Thursday Night Football opener. Outside of one scheduling conflict, the game has featured the reigning Super Bowl champions at home every year since 2004. Could the Broncos host the Panthers that night? It is possible, but only once since 2004 has the game even pitted teams from different conferences against each other. Just once has Week 1 featured a Super Bowl matchup, and that time – after Super Bowl IV in 1970 – the losing team (the Vikings) actually hosted the winning team (the Chiefs). So a Panthers at Broncos opener would be unprecedented.
View game action photos from Carolina's 24-10 loss to Denver in Super Bowl 50.