SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) _ The San Francisco 49ers released linebacker Ken Norton Jr. on Wednesday after seven seasons with the team because of salary-cap requirements.

Norton, who spent six years with the Dallas Cowboys before joining the 49ers as a free agent in 1994, started 112 consecutive games for San Francisco.

Popular among fans as well as his teammates, Norton holds the team record with 165 tackles in 1996.

But the 49ers must trim their payroll by an estimated $6 million to fit under the $67.4 million salary cap for the 2001 season. Releasing Norton would save the team a reported $900,000.

General manager Bill Walsh said the sides tried to work out a deal, but couldn't reach an agreement.

``He's really a gentleman, a sportsman and a great person,'' Walsh said. ``He handled it with class and dignity.''

Norton had a career-low 86 tackles last season and was plagued by lower-back problems. Although there was talk of possible retirement, 34-year-old Norton decided against it after having an MRI examination last month.

A call placed to Norton's agent, Gary Wichard, was not returned.

``I spoke with Kenny today and he was very professional about it,'' 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said. ``It is not easy for either one of us.''

Norton is the only player in NFL history to win three consecutive Super Bowls. He won two with the Cowboys before joining the 49ers, then won another championship ring in his first season with San Francisco.