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The Vikings released linebacker Eric Kendricks on Monday morning, beginning what could be the first of many moves to free up salary cap space.

Kendricks, the 2015 second-round pick out of UCLA, spent eight seasons in Minnesota as a leader on and off the field. He finished seven seasons as the Vikings' leading tackler, including each of his first five years, peaking with an All-Pro selection and Pro Bowl nod in 2019. Cutting Kendricks, who turned 31 years old in February, clears $9.5 million in needed salary cap space.

Kendricks arrived to the Vikings as a fast-talking, quick-footed linebacker who was considered a bit undersized (6 feet, 232 pounds) to be the middle linebacker of what was then a 4-3 defense. He became a prime example of the modern run-and-cover linebacker necessary to handle the NFL's growing ranks of elusive tight ends and running backs.

He also used his voice to inspire change off the field. Kendricks was the Vikings' Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee in 2020, the same year he was recognized as the Star Tribune's Sportsperson of the Year for his roles with the Vikings and within Twin Cities communities in need.

He was an annual member of the player's leadership group that meets with the head coach, and founding member of the team's social justice committee, which formed in 2017 to further voter education and registration, curriculum on racism and Black history, and law enforcement and criminal justice reform by partnering with nonprofits and schools.

In a statement, team owners Zygi and Mark Wilf commended Kendricks' impact as "immeasurable."

"He was the ultimate competitor and an incredible leader who set a high standard and consistently carried himself with class," the Wilfs said. "Off the field, Eric set an example for others with his passion for giving back and using his platform to drive positive change. We especially appreciate his immediate contributions as an original member of the team's social justice committee and his partnership with us in the fight against social and racial inequities. We are grateful to Eric and his wife, Ally, and look forward to watching them continue to make a difference in the future."

Kendricks posted on Instagram Tuesday, "Minnesota, I gave you my all. They told me it was a business, but i'll always treat it like the game I love. Heart on my sleeve for everyone to see. I don't know any other way."

Before releasing Kendricks, the team needed to clear more than $23 million to get under the 2023 salary cap with the new league year and free agency set to begin March 15.

The Vikings could part ways with a handful of veterans, especially with a defense under construction after ranking 31st, 30th and 27th in yardage allowed the last three seasons. Edge rusher Za'Darius Smith, safety Harrison Smith and linebacker Jordan Hicks are among those with movable, high-priced deals.

General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah said in a statement that Kendricks leaves a "powerful, permanent legacy" in Minnesota. Last week in Indianapolis, Adofo-Mensah turned attention to the young defenders when asked about the Vikings' outlook at linebacker.

"We have a lot of confidence in Brian Asamoah," Adofo-Mensah said. "Troy Dye is a very good player. William Kwenkeu showed some really good things on special teams, so we're going to take a look at that like we do with every position, but we have decisions to make just like everybody else does there."

Kendricks and Hicks manned the middle of a Vikings defense that struggled down the stretch last season, at one point allowing 400-plus yards in five straight games. Last month, defensive coordinator Brian Flores was hired to replace fired coordinator Ed Donatell.

Injuries limited Kendricks as the games mounted. He started 113 of 130 games for the Vikings, but often played through aches. A calf issue ended his 2020 season after 11 games, and various injuries — including a December hip problem — affected him last year even though he played every game.

Kendricks was a first-time team captain last season, the team's first under coach Kevin O'Connell.

"It is extremely difficult to start more than 100 games in this league," O'Connell said in a statement. "During my first year as head coach, Eric played a critical role as a captain and a member of the leadership council in helping establish the culture we want in Minnesota. He was a consistent mentor to his younger teammates, and his tireless work ethic set a standard for others to emulate."