Air and Space: Tight ends regress

Greg Olsen's production has dropped significantly for Chicago while Brandon Pettigrew has 35 catches through Detroit's first seven games. Getty Images

Air and Space has been a dud so far this season, leaving most of this division's talented tight ends lagging from a production standpoint. The trend is especially notable for the Chicago Bears, while the Detroit Lions are proving the exception.

The chart shows the 2010 performance of the NFC North's top five tight ends. I included the Green Bay Packers' Jermichael Finley, who is on injured reserve, to demonstrate that his five-game reception totals are better than those of two others over seven games.

Let's work from the bottom up. The biggest disappointment has been the Bears' Greg Olsen, who caught 15 passes in the Bears' first four games and had many of us believing that Mike Martz had found a way to incorporate the tight end into his offense. But Olsen has had only three receptions since then, and now ranks No. 26 among NFL tight ends in catches.

I'm not totally sure where to point the finger in this instance because he has been targeted for a relatively healthy 34 passes. Ultimately, however, we have to side with history. Through seven games, at least, we have to acknowledge that Olsen is in danger of becoming a pass-catching tight end buried in Martz's offense. I thought Martz would find ways to get Olsen involved on a consistent basis, and it could sill happen. But shame on him if it doesn't happen.

Meanwhile, Visanthe Shiancoe was the Minnesota Vikings' top receiver over their first two games, catching 10 passes in that span, but quieted down considerably after straining a hamstring in Week 3. You have to wonder if quarterback Brett Favre will start looking Shiancoe's way once again following the departure of receiver Randy Moss and Percy Harvin's ankle injury.

On the other end of the spectrum are the Lions, who have made Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler a focal point of their passing offense. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has made a point to utilize the tight end in his other stops around the NFL, be it Jermaine Wiggins and Jim Kleinsasser in Minnesota or Randy McMichael in Miami and St. Louis. But never has Linehan had two tight ends on pace for 60-plus receptions in a season.

And that would be a conservative estimate; Pettigrew and Scheffler have already combined for 61 receptions in the Lions' first seven games. Pettigrew ranks fifth among NFL tight ends with 35 receptions and could have had a half-dozen more if he had held on to a few passes in traffic. Scheffler has proved a valuable mismatch in the slot and even split out wide, and both players have helped make up for a lack of consistent production from the Lions' running game.

Expectations couldn't be higher for Pettigrew. Any tight end drafted in the first round must develop into an elite receiver to provide fair value. Pettigrew was just beginning to display some signs when a torn anterior cruciate ligament ended his rookie season, and he has picked up where he left off. I wouldn't call him elite yet, but he's well on his way.