Oakland Raiders: Predicting 5 surprise 2017 training camp stars

Vadal Alexander Oakland Raiders

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It happens every year and 2017 will be no different — several surprises stars will emerge during the upcoming Oakland Raiders training camp.

Chances are the Oakland Raiders are going to be one of the top teams in the NFL in 2017. The roster didn’t undergo a ton of change this offseason, which is a good thing after a 12-4 finish in 2016 that could have culminated in a deep playoff run if not for an ultimately injury to Derek Carr.

Despite that unfortunate end to last season, the future is bright for the Silver and Black.

Before we can start talking about them as Super Bowl contenders, though, we need to get through 2017 training camp. And as we all know, some of the most interesting moments of the offseason come during the dog days of summer. With so much talent on this Oakland roster, there are sure to be some big performances in the next few months.

For now, all we can do is speculate on which players will stand out. With that in mind, I’ve decided to take a look at a few unknown/unproven/underrated Raiders who watch their stock soar during training camp. Whether due to increased opportunities or a surplus of untapped talent, I find it hard to believe these guys won’t make life difficult on this coaching staff come roster cuts.

So here they are–five Raiders players who will emerge as surprise stars during 2017 training camp. It might not translate to production during the regular season, but it’ll definitely be entertaining to watch their stories unfold in the coming months.

Oakland Raiders helmet

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5. Jaydon Mickens, WR

We all know about the big names atop the Raiders’ receiver depth chart. Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree are the stars of the show, with Seth Roberts coming in as the distant third option. Cordarrelle Patterson could also enter the mix this season.

But what about some of the smaller names currently in the Oakland receiver room? More specifically, what about Jaydon Mickens, a 2016 undrafted free agent who has already turned heads during minicamp?

Here’s this from Raiders.com’s Kyle Martin:

Fellow practice squad wide out Jaydon Mickens also showcased his talents Saturday, with multiple receptions in contended coverage. Mickens put on an impressive display Friday as well, and followed it up with consistent play on the field this afternoon.

Clearly, that year on the practice squad is paying dividends for Mickens, an undersized-yet-explosive receiver out of Washington. While making plays in shorts and a helmet is much easier than shining on Sundays, it seems he’s ready to put some heat on the players currently vying for the final spot or two on the Raiders’ receiver depth chart.

Especially with how inconsistent Roberts and Patterson can be, don’t be surprised to see Mickens make a run at the slot role. If he can continue to make highlight plays and show some maturation from Year 1, don’t be surprised to see him push for a roster spot as training camp progresses.

Eddie Vanderdoes Oakland Raiders

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4. Eddie Vanderdoes, DT

The Raiders went into the offseason needing a new playmaking three-technique. The defensive tackle position absolutely flopped a season ago despite sporting considerable talent. Although they failed to address the position during free agency, they may have found their answer in Eddie Vanderdoes.

The former UCLA Bruin is a high-upside talent who once looked like a future superstar. Then, a 2015 ACL tear brought it all crashing down. After missing almost all of that season, he came back in 2016 and struggled to return to pre-injury form. However, as we saw during the Senior Bowl and Combine, Vanderdoes appears ready to tap back into his potential.

That’s why we should see a huge performance from him during 2017 training camp. He’s got all of the physical tools to be an impact interior pass rusher. It also doesn’t hurt that he isn’t exactly facing a ton of competition at a position of weakness for the Raiders.

By the time Week 1 rolls around, though, it won’t be a weakness. Vanderdoes will immediately assert himself as a force on the inside (as I previously predicted), providing Oakland with a legitimate interior pass rusher. That’ll not only help a secondary that floundered in 2016, but it’ll pull blockers away from Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin on the edges.

Elijah Hood 2017 NFL Draft

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3. Elijah Hood, RB

For a seventh-round pick, Elijah Hood was a terrific addition for the Raiders. However, when they called his name back in late April, I was unsure of the type of impact he’d have. Based on the early word from minicamp, though, the North Carolina product is quickly making a name for himself.

According to MMQB’s Peter King, Hood “turned the heads of the offensive staff” during rookie minicamp. While it’s obviously early in the process, it’s not crazy to imagine the young runner carving out a niche for himself in Year 1.

Right now, he appears primed to serve as lead back Marshawn Lynch’s primary backup. Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington will then serve as the change-of-pace, passing-down backs. That means that, if the 31-year-old Lynch struggles or gets injured, Hood could hypothetically step into a starting role as a rookie.

Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets that opportunity. Although Hood is limited athletically, he’s a powerful runner who proved in college he can pick up consistent yards on the ground. Look for him to shine during training camp, solidifying his status as the go-to guy if something happens to the likely rusty Lynch.

Shilique Calhoun Oakland Raiders

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2. Shilique Calhoun, DE/OLB

He may have come off the board after Jihad Ward, but Shilique Calhoun arguably looked like the better addition to the Oakland defensive front in 2016. The former Michigan State star showed off his unique athletic abilities, flashing some promise as a developing edge defender.

Although it wasn’t all pretty, the future looks bright for Calhoun. He’s a tremendous pass rushing presence who just needs more time to put it all together. The athletic tools are there, and he proved during college he has a knack for getting after quarterbacks. Now, he’s got one more thing going for him as we head into 2017.

Here’s the latest from the San Francisco Chronicle’s Vic Tafur:

Calhoun is already a monster from a physical standpoint. Now factor in those added 20 pounds, and you’ve got a guy who can cause a lot of headaches for opposing blockers. That’s not to say he’s ready to take the NFL by storm, but I’m expecting a big step forward from him.

It all starts during training camp, where he’ll begin his campaign for a more prominent role. Calhoun now has the size to pair with his athleticism, which should see him put on a show in the months leading up to the regular season.

Vadal Alexander Oakland Raiders

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1. Vadal Alexander, OL

Right now, the Raiders need someone to step up at right tackle. Austin Howard was expected to be the starter but is coming off shoulder surgery, which is why Marshall Newhouse will get first dibs. However, I don’t think either will be atop the depth chart when Week 1 rolls around.

Instead, there’s a good chance Vadal Alexander steals the job in the coming months. The 2016 seventh-round pick showed well as a rookie, earning nine appearances and five starts. Although there are some areas in need of significant improvement for the former LSU Tiger, he offers the upside to surprise during 2017 training camp.

While Alexander is a bit lacking in the athleticism department, he’s a tough, powerful blocker who can win at the point of attack. A full NFL year under his belt has likely helped him bridge some the gaps that kept him from shining a season ago. With a golden opportunity to steal a starting job this offseason, I’d expect him to capitalize.

No matter what happens at right tackle, the Raiders will have one of the best offensive lines of 2017. If Alexander steps up, breaks out and wins the starting job as I’m predicting, Oakland will make an argument for the top front five in football.

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