The Vikings' first major move to overhaul their defensive lineup should inspire equal parts sadness and optimism.

On Monday, the team released veteran linebacker Eric Kendricks. Kendricks was an excellent player and leader for eight seasons. He dedicated himself to good works and was as down to earth as any Vikings star in recent memory. He will be missed.

The cruel nature of the NFL allows us to heap praise on Kendricks while arriving at the same conclusion as the Vikings: He had lost a step, he was exposed in pass coverage during the 2022 season, he might not fit new defensive coordinator Brian Flores' scheme, and the team had to make payroll reductions to get under the salary cap.

Releasing Kendricks saves them $9.5 million against the 2023 cap. They entered the offseason needing to trim about $23 million. Set aside sentimentality, and this was an easy decision.

The move also hints at how quickly Flores could improve what was the NFL's 31st-ranked defense in terms of yards in 2022, even while reducing the number of accomplished defenders employed by the Vikings.

The 2022 defense had two major problems:

  1. Defensive coordinator Ed Donatell was passive and didn't improve as the season progressed. He relied on his veteran players to make big plays in crucial situations rather than risking pressure against opposing quarterbacks, in the form of blitzes or creative rushing schemes.
  2. The Vikings defense, which had been declining for years, showed its age and lack of speed, meaning that when the pass rush wasn't effective, its pass coverage was exposed.

Flores is a better coach than Donatell. That transition alone should pay dividends.

The Kendricks release indicates a desire to improve the defense's speed. That will not be difficult to do.

Last year's first-round draft pick, Lewis Cine, should be a starting safety this season. If the Vikings keep Harrison Smith, that would mean that Cam Bynum will become a reserve or perhaps a slot corner.

Last year's second-round pick, Andrew Booth, should become a starting corner this year.

Last year's third-round pick, Brian Asamoah, should move into the starting lineup at one of the linebacker positions.

Those moves alone, without any other upgrades via free agency or the 2023 draft, would dramatically upgrade the speed and aggressiveness of the Vikings defense.

If the Vikings use this year's first-round draft pick on a defender — most likely a pass rusher or corner — they could have four dynamic new starters in 2023.

The Vikings could save another $5 million against the cap by cutting linebacker Jordan Hicks. They could save $7.9 million by cutting running back Dalvin Cook.

They will save money on receiver Adam Thielen, either by releasing him or restructuring his contract.

The Vikings are on their way to getting under the salary cap limitation, which shouldn't be a surprise.

That $23 million figure shocked a lot of observers, but the Vikings have never had trouble managing player payroll. They could even try to restructure the contracts of Smith or quarterback Kirk Cousins if they want to clear more cap space for this season.

They can also structure Justin Jefferson's contract extension in a way that frees money for the 2023 season, if that is their priority.

What fans should remember about the NFL is that regardless of the salary cap, no well-run team ever gets rid of players it wants to keep.

Fans should also remember that for many non-superstars and non-quarterbacks, NFL careers have the shelf life of organic milk.

Kendricks built a career that was a credit to himself and those around him.

Former Vikings GM Rick Spielman landed a Pro Bowl-caliber linebacker with the 45th pick in the 2015 draft. Former Vikings coach Mike Zimmer and his staff helped Kendricks develop.

Kendricks played with passion and intelligence, and he used his fame to help others. He also made about $45 million before he turned 31.

Without him, the 2023 Vikings defense will be younger and faster. Flores should be able to work with that.