FOXBOROUGH -- He's 27 years old, and at the crossroads of his NFL career.
When Bethel Johnson joined the Patriots as a second-round draft choice in 2003, expectations were high. He was the fifth wide receiver taken, 45th overall.
Now he's fighting to keep his career afloat.
The Patriots are seeking a No. 2 receiver following the free agent departure of David Givens, and the speedy Johnson would like to be considered for the role. But with just 34 catches (including playoffs) over the last three years, he hasn't emerged as he'd hoped.
Perhaps the low point came in last season's playoffs, when he was inactive for both of the Patriots' games.
''It's hard for me to sit here and watch. I hate it. I hate it with a passion," Johnson said after a recent workout at Gillette Stadium. ''I've been totally disappointed."
The question is, with whom?
At times, Johnson sounded as if he were unsure what he has to do to earn more playing time.
''I'm doing everything I have to do every single year to make it happen," he said. ''But it's not up to me. I've asked the question for the last three years, really. Catch the ball better -- I stay and catch the ball. Run more routes -- I run more routes. Something's not there."
Johnson said an injury suffered early last season also stopped him from having ''a chance to get going, to get off the ground like I wanted to. All I can do is pray it doesn't happen again. Injuries can set you back big."
Along those lines, he has been participating in the Patriots' offseason program and feels healthy. He also doesn't feel forgotten by the team.
''If they wrote me off, I'd be gone by now," he said.
Among Johnson's most notable plays with the Patriots are two kickoff returns for touchdowns -- a 92-yarder against the Colts in 2003 at the end of the first half, and a 93-yarder in 2004 against the Browns on the opening play of the game. He also had a big catch against the Seahawks in 2004 -- a 48-yarder on third and 7 late in the fourth quarter to help the Patriots seal a victory. Two other big offensive plays for Johnson were a 41-yard touchdown catch to give the Patriots a 7-0 lead over the Titans (and ultimately a 17-14 win) in the 2003 Divisional playoffs, and a 55-yard touchdown reception in Atlanta in 2005.
But Johnson's production -- as both a receiver and kickoff returner -- has declined the last three seasons.
He played in 18 games as a rookie (including playoffs), with five starts. In 2004, he appeared in 16 games (one start), and last year he played in just 11. His catches dipped from 19 to 11 to four. His regular-season kickoff return average has dropped from 28.2 to 24.8 to 22.4.
The 5-foot-11-inch, 200-pound Johnson, who has primarily been utilized as a deep threat, said the drop-off isn't a result of a lack of work ethic or knowledge of the team's system because he knows ''the offense like the back of my hand" and does ''everything that's necessary to be out there."
He admits it was hard to stay positive last season.
''It got real frustrating at one point," said Johnson. ''I bust my tail, everybody knows that about me. It just wasn't happening for me. It was really frustrating. You have no idea."
If Johnson is to reverse his career course, it would be perfect timing for the Patriots. The team has Deion Branch atop the depth chart, with free agent signee Reche Caldwell (fifth year), rookie Chad Jackson, and 14-year veteran Troy Brown among those fighting for playing time.
In 2003, the Patriots thought enough of Johnson to trade up in the second round to select him -- shipping second- and fourth-round picks to the Carolina Panthers. Johnson followed Charles Rogers (No. 2, Lions), Andre Johnson (No. 3, Texans), Bryant Johnson (No. 17, Cardinals), and Taylor Jacobs (No. 44, Redskins) as receivers drafted that year.
As he prepares for the 2006 season, Johnson draws a parallel to his senior year at Texas A&M.
''[Critics] wrote me off because I got hurt the year before and had a bad [medical] condition," he said. ''They talk bad about you in the papers and then I came back and had a great year. I've spent 27 years proving everyone wrong. Keep it coming. It just motivates me."
Looking ahead to training camp, Johnson indicated he has ''a big chip" on his shoulder.
''I go into every year confident knowing what I can do as a player."