The move, requested by Hearst, will provide the 49ers with about $1.5 million in salary cap room for 2004.
Hearst, 33, was scheduled to earn a $2.5 million base salary for 2004 and was due a roster bonus of $500,000 next week. Given the "acceleration" of prorated segments of a signing bonus, Hearst will still count $2 million against the San Francisco spending limit in 2004. His current contract was to have run through the 2007 season.
The 49ers also released offensive tackle Derrick Deese and defensive lineman Sean Moran. Cutting Deese will save an additional $1.2 million against the cap.
"It's always difficult trying to get under the salary cap, and
you hate to say goodbye to players like these," 49ers general
manager Terry Donahue said to The Associated Press. "We wanted to give each player a
chance to continue their career early in the free agency period."
The split, which makes Hearst an unrestricted free agent, figures to be a difficult one for both parties. The 49ers organization showed great support for Hearst during a two-year hiatus in 1999-2000, when the tailback was attempting to rehabilitate from a devastating ankle injury that many experts felt would end his career. During that period, the classy Hearst continued to be a team leader and strong presence in the 49ers' locker room.
When healthy, Hearst was among the NFL's top tailbacks -- a runner whose inside power belied his lack of size, and whose competitive speed was better than his stopwatch time.
Four times in his career, including three seasons with the 49ers, Hearst rushed for over 1,000 yards. He averaged more than 4.4 yards per carry in five seasons.
The former University of Georgia star missed the final four games of the 2003 season with an ankle injury and, as a result, his carries and yards were poorest total since he sat out the entire 2000 campaign. Hearst had 768 yards and three touchdowns on 178 carries.
Last week, San Francisco management ostensibly passed the torch for the top tailback spot to three-year veteran Kevan Barlow, signing him to a five-year contract extension that could be worth as much as $20 million. At the time, the 49ers were still speaking to Hearst and his agent about a reworked contract that would better reflect the new roles for Barlow and Hearst.
In the end, however, an amenable deal could not be struck and the highly respected Hearst decided that it was time to move on.
Hearst began his career as a first-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals in the 1993 draft. Beyond his stints with the Cardinals (1993-95), he played with Cincinnati (1996) before settling in with San Francisco in 1997.
He has started in 105 of his 119 appearances and has carried 1,811 times for 7,885 yards and 29 touchdowns.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.