NFL off-season: Key dates in the 2013 NFL season

By Paul Higham Twitter: @SkySportsPaulH.   Last Updated: 13/03/13 2:07pm

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The NFL season may only last from September to February, but the time in between is hardly a huge lull given that this is the time when all 32 teams will be doing their utmost behind the scenes to make sure they are challenging for the next Super Bowl.

As soon as the curtain came down on Baltimore's Super Bowl victory in New Orleans, every team was soon looking around at new signings, trades, cuts and where they needed to strengthen in the draft.

As we start the countdown to the 2013 season, we run down the key dates to look out for, including the national and regional combines, which are effectively live auditions or trials for the top college prospects, the NFL Draft and trading deadlines.

Although they may look like just fine details, what teams do on these dates and how they perform here could be the difference between winning and losing next season.

Here's what to look out for in the off-season.

February 20-26 - NFL Combine, Indianapolis

Tavon Austin was a star at the Combine

The best college prospects get their strength, speed and skills tested to the limit by the NFL scouts at Lucas Oil Stadium. The big prospects also get invited for interviews by interested parties who try and get a taste of the personality behind the stats.

Players lift weights, do cone drills and special positional drills for each position they play in, while they also take the much-maligned intelligence tests to try and prove they can handle the complex playbooks that operate in the NFL.

A player's previous college performances obviously are taken into account, and a good or bad combine may not affect their draft stock, but the NFL is all about statistics and teams love to have every last piece of information on players they are going to hand multi-million dollar contracts to.

These are then followed by a host of Regional Combine and Pro Days from individual for players to show their skills ahead of the draft.

March 12 Start of Free Agency

The official start of the 2013 league year is on March 12, with all NFL contracts starting and ending on this date so this is the day when the frenzy begins in earnest as teams look to strengthen their roster, or indeed cut out any dead wood off their salary cap.

Teams have to try and fit into their salary cap, so difficult decisions often have to be made even on star players if they believe that they cannot sacrifice the cash - as seems to be the case with Anquan Boldin who would love to stay in Baltimore - the Ravens would love to keep him but business dictates he move on.

With big-name players often having roster bonuses due in a certain year of their contract, this is the day that will be paid out so if they cannot agree with a restructuring deal then they could well be cut loose, or traded if a suitable trading partner can be found.

The trading period also begins at the same time so much more like the transfer window seen in the Premier League teams can discuss swapping players for picks in the upcoming draft depending on their needs and salary cap space.

This salary cap is important and usually dictates who the major players will be in free agency. Hence this year with tons of money left in the bank you'll see the Bengals, Browns, Dolphins and Colts leading the way in free agency with the likes of the Buccaneers, Eagles, Jaguars and Patriots also having more than a little wiggle room.

March 16-17: Regional Combine, Atlanta

March 17-20: Annual League Meeting, Phoenix

One of two meetings scheduled during the off-season, these are when the 32 owners of the teams in the NFL get together to discuss all the big issues ahead of the new season in September.

At least this year there is no lockout to have to talk about or issues with replacement officials and the like, so they can stick to the regular script of proposed rule changes and other assorted issues that may be floating around.

Don't be surprised if some owners cosy up to each other to talk about possible trades either.

March 23-24 Regional Combines Baltimore & Seattle

April 7-8 Super Regional Combine, Dallas, Texas

April 25-27 NFL Draft, New York

Robert Griffin III was the second pick in 2012 Draft

This is the big one - the Super Bowl of the off-season, which in America ranks as one of the most watched sporting occasions of the year despite no actual action taking place on the field!

The system employed in the NFL places competitiveness as a priority, hence the worst team in the league last season gets the first pick of the top college prospects, and should ensure that even the most hapless of teams will slowly improve.

This is not always the case, obviously, but the chance is there. Despite having no Andrew Luck's or RGIII's in this year's Draft, it will still be a much-hyped occasion when Roger Goodell walks out at Radio City Music Hall to announce who the Kansas City Chiefs will make the top draft pick of 2013.

May 20-22 NFL spring League meeting in Boston

Late July Training camps open

New draft signings will mingle with returning veterans to try and get settled into life as an NFL player, while lesser stars have their chance to fight for a place on the final roster.

Many teams go to a nearby university to stage training camps, which includes carrying out almost a full game's worth of plays and staging 'two-a-days' when the players are put through tier paces twice in one day.

August 3 Hall of Fame Enshrinement in Canton, Ohio

Deoin Sanders made it into the Hall of Fame

After being announced during Super Bowl week, the 2013 class will be officially inducted into the Hall of Fame - joining the elite of the game and having their names carved into NFL history for ever.

This year Larry Allen, Chris Carter, Curley Culp, Jonathan Ogden, Bill Parcels, Dave Robinson and Warren Sapp will be the lucky men who will join the very best in the game's history.

August 4 - Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio

Held at Fawcett Stadium right next door to the Hall of Fame building in Canton, the exhibition game signals the start of the pre-season program in the NFL when teams will play four 'friendly' games.

The two teams selected to the Hall of Fame game will play five of those games, and although starters are regularly rested there is still competition for places and chances to the lesser lights to earn their place.

Teams are sometimes selected to compliment some of the personalities inducted into the Hall of Fame the previous day - such as in 2009 when Buffalo played in the game as their owner Ralph Wilson was inducted.

September 5 Kick-off to the 2013 season

As per tradition, the Super Bowl champions will open the new season up with a home game on the Thursday, September 5, before the rest of the league starts their campaigns on Sunday September 8.

Last season the reigning champion New York Giants lost at home to the NFC East rivals Dallas Cowboys, and the Baltimore Ravens will hope to do better when they run out at M&T Bank Stadium.

Again it could be a divisional battle with Pittsburgh the obvious shout, but with the Packers, Patriots and Jets also on their schedule they could all make for high-profile kick-offs to go along with the festivities that will go on around the city.

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