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Pick-Six: Best football card releases from the 2020 NFL season

Amid a massive rise in the hobby throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 NFL season represented the first full season where every football card release turned into a high-priced, hard-to-find commodity for collectors.

Hobby box prices rose by hundreds of dollars in most cases, and even doubled the price from the year prior for most products.

Shelves at major retailers like Target and Walmart were frequently cleaned out within minutes, with customers waiting in physical or virtual lines to get their hands on the latest products.

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While it might have sounded appealing for a company like Panini to coast with its overnight fame, the hobby’s lone NFL card provider raised the bar with many of its releases, giving collectors a high-quality product to go with their new price points.

Dozens of different types of boxes were released, whether it was a slew of different hobby boxes or a variety of retail formats for many popular sets. With so many options, it was easy to see how new collectors could get overwhelmed.

But, to help them out and to settle the score once and for all, we broke down the top six football card releases from the 2020 NFL season.

6. 2020 Panini Donruss Football

It’s only right to kick this countdown off with the classic.

Donruss Football is Panini’s flagship product, and the Donruss “brand” serves as the base for a few other sets, as well.

While 2019 boxes ran around $85 for a while before the pandemic, prices jumped to the $250-$350 range for the 2020 release. Even then, the boxes were jampacked with tons of value.

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Hobby boxes came with 180 cards, filled with all sorts of big-name rookies, fun inserts, and a mix of veterans and legends, as well. Each box guaranteed an autograph and a memorabilia card, each of which are some of the cleaner options when looking for a hit for your favorite player.

Add in the wide variety of retail formats with hanger, blaster and mega boxes, along with the additions of Optic previews for rookie cards, and this release had something for collectors of any level.

It isn’t the most high-end release on Panini’s calendar, but it always serves as the start of the true card-collecting season, and seems like a fitting way to start this list.

5. 2020 Panini Illusions Football

This could easily be considered a hot take when looking at the full lineup of Panini releases throughout 2020, especially when considering the top-tier, high-end products that come out after the season wraps up.

But, Panini’s Illusions Football really stepped up its game for 2020, and sneaked into the top five as a result.

The thicker card stock makes the hobby format feel special in comparison to the release’s retail versions, and the hits that hobby boxes provided were some of the best football cards of the year.

Each hobby box came packed with one “encased” autograph, two other autographs, and two memorabilia cards, along with a litany of inserts and rookies.

The base card design was top-notch, and the acetate inserts that Panini included were solid, as well.

Again, it was incredibly pricey in comparison to its 2019 counterpart, with hobby boxes going for $500-plus near the middle of 2021. But, the hobby boxes were a fun rip, and the variety of retail formats ensured that anyone could get their hands on some Illusions Football.

4. 2020 Panini Phoenix Football

If there was a Most Improved Award for football cards, 2020 Phoenix Football would undoubtedly earn that honor.

In recent years, Phoenix Football hasn’t been the hot (no pun intended) commodity that it became in 2020. But, with an improved design, some of the best inserts in the hobby, and its shiny Optichrome finish, Phoenix Football rose towards the top of the pack at the perfect time.

The base cards had a beautiful design without going over the top, and the mix of parallel colors made it fun for anyone who collects rainbows of their favorite players.

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The hits, which were found in boxes as two autographs and one memorabilia card, were also incredible, and are more rare with the release being exclusive to the hobby box format.

Those hobby boxes only came with 60 cards, which leads to some unfortunate math when calculating the price-per-card. But, the overall quality of the cards and Panini’s ability to improve the product year-over-year made it well worth the money for any diehard collector.

3. 2020 Panini Donruss Optic Football

Many card collectors will say that a player’s premier rookie card comes from Panini’s Prizm set. But, if recent years are any indication, Donruss Optic’s Rated Rookies may be taking over as the hobby’s go-to rookie card.

Evident by the insane rise in price year-over-year, the demand for Panini’s Donruss Optic Football set has never been higher. Odds in each hobby box didn’t change, with boxes housing 20 packs of four cards with only one autograph guaranteed. But, hobby boxes jumped more than $500 at least from 2019 to 2020.

Even retail formats skyrocketed in price, with mega boxes from Walmart that only guaranteed specific parallels running for right around $200 in the weeks after their release.

The reason? The product’s sleek design, the variety of parallels for every card, and the pursuit of rare “Downtown” inserts with tailored backgrounds for each player.

While the photos aren’t as great as 2019 because of Panini’s inability to hold its Rookie Premiere event, the end result was still just as perfect for the 2020 release.

Donruss Optic Football landing in the third spot isn’t so much a knock on the product, but rather an indication of just how high of a quality the top two releases on this list truly are.

2. 2020 Panini Select Football

Many diehard football card collectors are upset about Panini debuting retail formats for Select Football in 2020. But, in my mind, it makes the product that much better, and that much more deserving of the second spot on this list.

Select Football has long been one of the higher-end products in Panini’s calendar, with hobby boxes running for right around $250 before the pandemic in 2020. In 2021, new hobby boxes were going for more than $1,000.

That price jump worried collectors who were a fan of Select’s design, its mix of Concourse, Premiere, Club, and Field Level parallels, its inclusion of die-cuts, and its picture-perfect RPAs (rookie patch autographs.

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But, as the hobby went through its unprecedented rise in 2020 and 2021, Panini rolled with the works as it relates to retail products. Value packs, hanger boxes, blaster boxes, mega boxes. You name it, Panini put it out for Select Football.

In those formats, collectors were treated to even more exclusive parallels, specifically with die-cuts.

While collectors will argue that the addition of retail formats makes the product more common and less desirable, it gives collectors the chance to stay involved with one of the year’s best releases, regardless of the level of their collecting.

With all of that said, it’s an easy candidate for the top two as far as the 2020 season’s releases are concerned.

1. 2020 Panini Chronicles Football

You read it correctly.

No, the top football card release of the 2020 NFL season wasn’t Select Football. It wasn’t Donruss Optic Football. It wasn’t even Prizm Football, which is highly sought after and didn’t even crack the top six in our rankings.

For the 2020 NFL season, Panini’s Chronicles Football takes the cake as the year’s best release.

Chronicles Football debuted in 2020 for the 2019 NFL season, mashing together a slew of different products that either didn’t get released throughout Panini’s calendar, or releases that featured players in college jerseys and could use an update.

That product was a fan-favorite in its first year, and Panini managed to make it even better for the 2020 NFL season.

The hobby format, featuring two autographs and one memorabilia card, houses 17 different sets for collectors to work with. That leads to boxes loaded with some of the year’s top rookies, and some of the cleanest-looking designs of the entire year.

After a strong showing the year prior, Panini added some heavy-hitters like Prizm Black, Clearly Donruss and Momentum to keep things fresh for the 2020 rookie class.

Then, Panini made things even better by creating retail formats, which each feature exclusive sets of their own to give fans even more variety.

It’s the perfect product to recommend to new collectors, along with those who want to spend money on a release but are unsure on a specific set that they may enjoy.

It’s not a hot-topic release like Select, Optic, or Prizm, but it’s the top product in our books when looking back at the 2020 NFL season.

What was your favorite release from Panini throughout the 2020 NFL season? Let us know by following @SOTSports on Twitter or by liking our Facebook page!

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