NFL offseason key dates: League must stay flexible as it continues to deal with COVID-19 issues

Upon the conclusion of Super Bowl 55, so ends an NFL season like none other while the official league-wide start to the offseason begins.

The NFL pulled off the unimaginable in executing a complete season and postseason amid COVID-19-related challenges. But the league’s offseason will look markedly different for a second straight year.

The biggest and most notable difference involves the NFL scouting combine. Because of coronavirus concerns, the top draft prospects, team talent evaluators and league officials will not convene in Indianapolis, as they have since 1987. Instead, colleges will hold workouts on their campuses, and NFL officials are still determining where and how to execute the pre-draft medical evaluations.

The combine usually takes place the final week of February and into March. Now, teams will hold pro days in February and into the early spring. The scattered workouts will present challenges for NFL teams, but at this point, they’re used to adapting to COVID.

From there, the next key offseason dates should unfold with a degree of normalcy.

The NFL offseason is going to look different this year.

Feb. 23: The earliest day teams can place franchise or transition designations on players in advance of free agency. Both tags are designed to ensure that a team doesn’t lose a select free agent on the open market without some form of compensation.

March 9: The deadline for franchise and transition tag use is 4 p.m. ET.

March 15-17: The three-day stretch known as the “legal tampering window” commences. Teams can engage in dialogue with the representatives of free agent players from other teams but cannot officially sign any such players to contracts.

March 17: The 2021 league year officially kicks off at 4 p.m. ET, and so does the start of free agency. Teams can begin signing free agents to contracts.

April 5: This should mark the date when teams that have hired new head coaches can begin offseason workout programs. However, COVID protocol will likely affect these arrangements. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell indicated last week leading up to the Super Bowl that the NFL and NFL Players Association could agree to modified offseason program formats. Last season, teams held virtual workouts rather than in-person conditioning programs. People familiar with preliminary discussions expect the same this time around.

April 19: Teams with returning head coaches can begin offseason workouts. But again, these workouts are likely to take place virtually.

April 23: The deadline for restricted free agents to sign offer streets.

April 28: The last day for clubs to match offer sheets for restricted free agents.

April 29-May 1: The 2021 NFL draft is slated for Cleveland. Considering how last year’s draft took place virtually, it’s possible that the league’s top prospects will not be on hand for this event.

In pre-COVID days, rookie minicamps and offseason practices would begin a week or two after the draft. But these portions of the offseason calendar could change in 2021, just as they did in 2020, when teams held virtual film-study and planning sessions rather than on-field practices.

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones and listen to the Football Jones podcast on iTunes.

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