Editor’s note: This is the first part in a series that spotlights three Bills-Raiders matchups to watch Sunday, 1:25 p.m., at O.co Coliseum.
49ers WR Sammy Watkins vs. Raiders CB DJ Hayden
Tale of the tape:
Watkins (14): 6-foot-1, 211 pounds, rookie season, Clemson
Hayden (25): 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, second season, Houston
Receiver Sammy Watkins was not on the draft board when the Raiders selected No. 5 overall. He was taken the pick prior by the Buffalo Bills, who traded up to select him.
The Raiders would’ve taken outside linebacker Khalil Mack even if Watkins was available, as sources indicated at the time that they favored Texas A&M’s Mike Evans in the receiver crop.
That’s not to say the Raiders don’t respect his immense talent. They aren’t surprised that he’s flourished in his rookie season, with 59 receptions for 850 yards and five touchdowns. They know he can make big plays at any time, and must watch him closely to prevent another strong game.
"I think he’s a talented guy, a talented guy with the ball in his hands," interim head coach Tony Sparano said. "He’s really an explosive player."
Containing Watkins will primarily be DJ Hayden’s responsibility. The matchup of first-round picks -– Hayden was taken No. 12 overall in 2013 –- should be a primary focus for fans. Watkins is incredibly fast. Hayden has plenty of speed, with good coverage instincts and greater physicality than most give him credit for.
He was limited on Thursday with a back injury but the Raiders hope he’s able to play well in this big test. Hayden was activated off the physically unable to perform list before Week 8, and has been a major player since Week 9. He needs prolonged stretches of health, a rarity in his professional career, to reach the vast potential this organization still believes he has.
The Raiders hope he develops into a true No. 1 cornerback, where he’d be expected to win matchups like this and shut Watkins down. He’s been good, not great, in recent weeks and is improving. A strong showing against a top-flight young receiver would show that progress is being made.