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The 49ers have parted ways with Merton Hanks, 31, one of their most recognizable and popular players. The Pro Bowl starter at free safety four of the past five seasons was released Tuesday after eight seasons with the team.

"This is one of the most difficult decisions I've personally had to make in football because he's been one of the pillars of strength of the San Francisco 49ers for a number of years," general manager Bill Walsh said. "He's been the very essence of the spirit of the 49ers."

Hanks' wife, Marva, said her husband had no comment when reached by telephone.

"In and of itself, it's shocking," said Leigh Steinberg, Hanks' agent. "He expected to play his whole career in San Francisco."

The 49ers also completed a trade for Green Bay defensive back Craig Newsome for a fifth-round pick in the 2000 draft. The addition of Newsome, a four-year veteran who can play cornerback and safety, was a factor in the decision to release Hanks, Walsh said.

Zack Bronson or Lance Schulters will start at free safety Sunday against Jacksonville. Both bring a different style to the position than Hanks and it's a style Walsh obviously prefers.

"We have some of the great running backs in the league (in the NFC West) and they're all big, powerful men," Walsh said. "And Merton would have to take them on. You can't expect a single man to take down these running backs. You need a safety's help, a la Ronnie Lott, Carlton Williamson, Jeff Fuller.

"Merton just isn't built for that kind of football."

One of the lasting memories from a year ago was Atlanta's Jamal Anderson fending off Hanks with a straight arm en route to a 34-yard touchdown run in the Falcons' 20-18 victory over the 49ers in an NFC divisional playoff game.

The 49ers created $1.5 million in salary cap room with the move. In addition to $1 million they cleared with a restructure of Garrison Hearst's contract, the 49ers might use the money to sign a veteran offensive tackle or provide depth at other positions.

"Our feeling is that Merton would be best-suited as a third-down defensive back rather than a starting weak safety," Walsh said. "He can help us win just as many games and make just as many plays as a nickel or dime back as he would as a starting free safety."

Hanks was plagued by ankle and Achilles' tendon injuries last season, a possible reason for his drop in production.

He went a career-long streak of 11 games without an interception before recording four in the last five games of the regular season.

The 49ers also were in a bind at cornerback.

Their top three pass coverage players were all 5-foot-9 or under, and the 49ers were concerned about mismatches when they play big receivers.

Newsome is a 6-footer with a solid coverage history.

Jets pick up Parmalee

HEMPSTEAD -- For more than a year, New York Jets linebacker Bryan Cox has been urging coach Bill Parcells to try to sign Dolphins running back Bernie Parmalee. On Tuesday, two days after Miami let Parmalee go, Parcells did just that.

"Yesterday, I called Bryan up and told him, 'Quit bugging me, I got the player,' " Parcells said. Parmalee, 32 next week, will be plugged in immediately on most of the Jets' special teams. The eight-year veteran, Miami's leading tackler on coverage teams the past two seasons, also might be utilized as a third-down back.

"It's great," said Parmalee. "I've got an opportunity to play for one of the greatest coaches that ever coached. When my career is done, I can say I had the opportunity to play for the big Tuna. It's good to know that."

To make room for Parmalee, the Jets terminated the contract of running back Keith Byars, who had been scheduled to be a backup F-Back in the club's restructured offense. Byars did not play special teams, was effectively bumped to third string Sunday when Parcells elected to keep second-year player Blake Spence.

The Dolphins, overloaded with running backs and young players on the rise, no longer had room for Parmalee.

Around the league

Miami Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson said running back Cecil Collins appears doubtful for Monday's game at Denver. Collins, the Dolphins' leading rusher in exhibition games with 144 yards on 34 carries and two touchdowns, aggravated a college injury Aug. 28.

The Carolina Panthers signed veteran kick returner and wide receiver Eric Metcalf, who was released by the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. Metcalf, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, is the NFL's all-time leader in kickoff and punt-return yardage.

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