SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- As he prepared to become a free agent for the first time, quarterback Sam Darnold's wish list didn't include the usual aspirations of others hitting the open market.
Darnold wasn't worried about money or playing time so much as wanting a chance to hit the reset button on a career that hasn't met the expectations that came with being the No. 3 pick in the 2018 NFL draft. After three seasons with the New York Jets and two with the Carolina Panthers in which those teams went a combined 21-34 in his starts, Darnold's focus was simple: find a good, stable situation where he would be surrounded by talented coaches and players.
"Being in a really good organization was a priority for me," Darnold said. "Being with really good coaches and really good personnel as well. Those were kind of the top things for me."
So it was that in the opening hours of the early negotiating window on March 13 that Darnold agreed to a one-year, $4.5 million deal with the San Francisco 49ers. Darnold's contract could be worth up to $11.5 million if Darnold is able to reach incentives for playing time and individual and team performance.
For the 49ers, adding another quarterback was a necessity with presumptive starter Brock Purdy recovering from right elbow surgery and Trey Lance working his way back from a broken right ankle. No team knows the importance of having multiple capable quarterbacks more than the Niners, who fell short of the Super Bowl because they ran out of healthy signal-callers early in the second half of the NFC Championship Game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
On paper, selling a talented free agent quarterback on being third string figured to be a difficult task, but not all No. 3 quarterback jobs are created equal. With Purdy and Lance coming off injury and still largely unproven, the Niners found themselves in the unique position of searching for a No. 3 quarterback who could easily be No. 2 or even No. 1.
Instead of chasing a big name such as Aaron Rodgers or Lamar Jackson, the Niners opted to continue building the rest of the roster while seeking a quarterback on a cost-effective contract who has a combination of experience and upside.
"Sam has as good of a skill set as there is," Niners coach Kyle Shanahan said. "That's why he was the third pick the draft. ... I don't think he's always been in the best situations, which is tough for quarterbacks."
Darnold's approach of finding the best possible situation is one another highly drafted quarterback recently took when he became a free agent for the first time.
Mitch Trubisky spent his first four seasons with the Chicago Bears after being drafted No. 2 overall in 2017. He offered plenty of good and bad but eventually saw his time with the Bears end when Chicago declined his fifth-year option. When Trubisky entered free agency following the 2020 season, his hope was to find a team that could offer an opportunity to least compete for a starting spot.
Meanwhile, the Buffalo Bills had emerged as an AFC favorite and were about five months away from signing starting quarterback Josh Allen to a six-year, $258 million contract. They weren't even on Trubisky's radar when free agency opened. When Bills general manager Brandon Beane and Trubisky's camp had a conversation about a different player in the early days of free agency, neither side thought Buffalo was a realistic landing spot for Trubisky.
But Trubisky's market wasn't developing as hoped, and Beane made it clear that if things didn't work out elsewhere, the Bills would be interested. Buffalo didn't have much cap space and Allen was emerging as a legitimate star, but it could offer Trubisky the resources to reestablish himself.
Beane's pitch to Trubisky was simple: If you play, you'll have top-tier talent and one of the league's best coaching staffs to help you succeed. If you don't, you'll get a year to recalibrate and learn before hitting the market again.
On March 18, 2021, Trubisky signed a one-year, $2.5 million deal with the Bills.
"Ultimately, I think Mitch would be the first to say it's what he needed at the time," Beane said. "We gave him a chance of no pressure, come in and just let me reset, let me hear a different voice. And you know, [Brian] Daboll and Ken Dorsey just were very positive with him and just kind of restarted him. Josh knew his story a little bit. They got to know each other. I think when Mitch left after that one year, I think he felt like a new guy, kind of reenergized."
Trubisky attempted only eight passes in 2021, completing six for 43 yards with no touchdown passes and an interception. More importantly, he was finally out from under the weight of expectations that go with being a No. 2 overall pick with a team long starved for a franchise quarterback.
Even without playing much, Trubisky's year in Buffalo helped him sign a two-year, $14.285 million contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers early in 2022 free agency, his year in Buffalo doing plenty to rehab his value.
"I got to know him well, and he was like, 'I appreciate you guys bringing me here,'" Beane said. "It was almost like he sounded like he was playing not to make mistakes instead of just playing free. And it kind of freed him up to go back and play how he used to play."
Darnold is hoping to, at minimum, do something similar in San Francisco, albeit under different circumstances. At this week's league meetings, Shanahan acknowledged that Darnold and Lance will get first-team reps during the offseason program in what is likely a competition for the No. 2 job behind Purdy and could include a start or two until Purdy is healthy.
Darnold received no promises about playing time, nor did he seek any. His goal, for now, is to learn the offense and do what he can to build on a solid finish last season in which the Panthers went 4-2 and seemed to find a rhythm with game plans featuring a strong running game and plenty of play-action passes similar to what the Niners like to do.
"There are some unknowns with Brock's injury and then Trey coming back," Darnold said. "As long as we're winning games, that's the only thing that matters to me. ... Obviously as a competitor, you want to play, but you got to do what's right for the team.
"The last thing that I'm worried about right now is play time and whatnot."
If recent history is any indication, Darnold's time will come one way or another. Since Shanahan and general manager John Lynch took over in 2017, the 49ers have had three quarterbacks attempt at least 30 passes every season except 2019 and 2021, with 2019 being the only season in which only one quarterback went over that mark. Which is why, no matter what label anyone applies to Darnold, he -- like Purdy, Lance and anyone else brought in at the position -- has to stay ready.
"You have to prepare for everything -- as we really learned last year -- and so that's what we've tried to do," Lynch said. "I think we're in a good situation and looking forward to see it play out."