Ever since the rookie premiere became just as focused on autographs as it did wearing the NFL uniforms for the first time, the card companies have done everything in their power to think of new ways to get the rookies to hard sign the content for the first few sets of the year. Because the draft and premiere are so close together, it has always presented a challenging situation that required a number of creative solutions. 2011 had to be the worst of the worst due to the impending lockout that forced a crazy amount of adjustment at the premiere, but even that didnt stop anyone from trying to figure out a way to make on card autographs the focus. In the last three years, both Topps and Panini have progressed designs through their first major sets of the year in Topps Flagship and Elite, and I want to take a look at how things have gotten better, or in some cases, gotten worse.
2010 Rookie Premiere
Coming into the 2010 season, the arrival of Tim Tebow and Sam Bradford created tremendous hype around their first autographs as pro players. For the first time ever, Panini created cards to insert into Elite, which had been previously able to use college jerseys to picture the rookies. With Upper Deck signing the CLC exclusive license, NFL uniform photos were bumped up almost two entire product cycles to make it work in Elite. Panini did a GREAT job with 2010 Elite, especially on the on card autographs, which may only be overshadowed by 2012′s new cards.
Topps also introduced a new card called the Red Zone rookie signature that complemented their already successful Rookie Premiere autograph set. It was done in a very similar fashion with photos taken one day, and autographs signed over the weekend. Unlike the RPAs, which were only available in the flagship hobby set, the Red Zone signatures were available through the entire card season. I wasnt exactly a big fan of the design, but it was nice to have added content that was unavailable before.
2011 Rookie Premiere
When the lockout became evident that it would last through most of the offseason, both Panini and Topps had to scramble to make things work appropriately for their programs for the year. Both companies heavily relied on combine photographs, which were not even close to living up to past year’s pictures from OTAs done prior to the premiere. The on card autographs that were so popular in 2010 Elite were brought back, but this time were done in such a hideous design that I couldnt even bring myself to buy even a single card from the product. The vertical and boxy design of the card was horrendous and ugly, which only exacerbated the disastrous of an Elite product that was quickly losing steam.
Topps came back for a second year with the red zone signatures, including a VASTLY improved design and a promise of more on card signatures throughout early products like Platinum and Finest. Because the rookies had not yet been assigned numbers, both companies had to use the awkward “00″ jerseys that made collectors question what was going on. The adjustment of the design proved to be a good investment in early products, but like 2010 the cards lost steam later in the program because of the new focus on hard signed rookie content in almost every product that Topps offered during the year.
2012 Rookie Premiere
With a full offseason to prepare, as well as a new computer program that effortlessly airbrushed NFL jerseys on college pictures, the previews from the rookie premiere in process look to be on a level that has never been seen before. Panini’s on card “rookie inscription” cards from 2012 Elite look to be a 180 degree turn around from last year’s train wreck, and should be a valuable chase for collectors in the early release.
Topps saw Panini’s bet and raised them with a stunning addition of a new set that might be replacing the Red Zone signatures throughout the 2012 year. They previewed RGIII’s card last night, and I am floored by how cool it looks. We still have yet to see any other examples from the set, but Im sure that will change over the course of the weekend. Bottom line, the RGIII card was the best of the night in my opinion, without even seeing the rest of the cards that will be joining it this year.
Now that both companies are locked and loaded for 2012 and the unparalleled potential of Luck and the rest of the top picks, its going to be a bloodbath in the fight for dominance this year. With a new addition of an 18 product calendar, it looks as if both companies will be forced to creatively approach their planning unlike any other year. Hopefully, we will get to see the fruits of competition early on, as Topps’ flagship set is already shaping up to be an early contender for product of the year with a beautiful design and added content. With cards like the RGIII to bolster pack value, lets hope there are more surprises in store.