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NFL Regional Combines are a low-budget football version of 'American Idol'

NFL Regional Combines play host to some of the best stories of the NFL Draft, and you're not paying attention.

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL Scouting Combine, recently held in Indianapolis, is effectively the start of the NFL Draft silly season. Every story naming winners and losers sets off a thousand narratives to be carried through the season openers. NFL Draft scouting reports, unreliable as they are, are brilliant at developing characters, and even making anonymous villains of themselves.

If you like the NFL Draft, then you should love this time of year. There is no shortage of entertainment, and so much easy-to-reach salaciousness, that nuance occasionally gets left to rot on a high shelf. Simply, you're likely not going to have any idea about those two seventh-rounders your team will eventually sign, much less the undrafted free agents. (And why should you? They're not likely to hang around long.) But in case you're curious, or maybe burnt out already on the Big Story, you can take a peek at the bottom of the barrel.

You can check out the NFL Regional Combines, and get a good look at the long shots.

Like a low-budget football version of American Idol

This year, the NFL is hosting Regional Combines in five cities, including a two-day event in Chicago this coming weekend. The Chicago Regional is the last of the five-city swing before a dramatically named, invite-only SUPER REGIONAL held in Arizona on March 21, one day before the NFL Veteran Combine.

It seems like easy fodder for a reality show -- players show up at the Regional Combines and run a gamut of tests, and those who perform best get invited to the Super Regional where they get one last chance to impress NFL scouts before the draft. The process sifts out a few gems from a lot of duds. But even a Super Regional invite isn't much of an endorsement.

In 2014, 66 rookies who had participated in a Regional or Super Combine made it to NFL training camps, though just two of those players were drafted -- offensive tackle Ulrick John, selected No. 232 overall by the Colts, and center Demetrius Rhaney, selected No. 250 overall by the St. Louis Rams. The year before, 69 players from the lower combines made training camp rosters, four of them drafted -- the highest being linebacker Rufus Johnson at No. 183 overall by the New Orleans Saints -- with just 20 opening the season on NFL rosters.

There were 213 participants at last year's Super Regional, and 175 participants at this year's Houston Regional Combine alone. An NFL.com recap of the event estimated that nearly 95 percent of participants would never hear from the NFL again. Those who emerge are of the overlooked, Vince Papale variety. The process begins exactly the same way for the lucky and unlucky -- an application and $150 fee just to take part.

Regional Combines may be as bootstrap-y as a purportedly bootstrap league gets. Last year, player stories ranged from heartwarming -- like Alejandro Villanueva, who went to Afghanistan three times after playing for Army and spent last season on the Pittsburgh Steelers practice squad, to offbeat -- like Antoine Morgan, the 5'1 running back who promised to run in the low 4-second range in the 40-yard dash last year then posted a 5.3.

Regional Combines provide the mix of colorful characters and easily digestible dream-chasing that would make for golden television if put in the right hands. At the very least, it makes for fun sub-viewing for those who are already strung out for NFL Draft coverage.

4 names to know

Willie Creear, CB, Eastern Michigan - 5'10, 193 -- Everyone was agape at Byron Jones' Combine record (and world record?!) 147-inch broad jump in Indianapolis. If Creear had been in attendance, we might have been talking about two phenom defensive backs seemingly showing up out of nowhere.

Creear set a Regional Combine record, and what would have been a big boy Scouting Combine record with a 47-inch vertical jump in Denver. His other measurables are a little difficult to dig up, but he likely earned some extra attention just from his explosiveness alone.

Creear is the definition of a super-sleeper -- he didn't crack first-, second- OR third-team All-MAC -- but being something of an athletic specimen should earn him more looks.

Justin Sims, WR, North Alabama - 5'7, 171 -- Injury problems wrecked Sims' final two collegiate seasons. Though that fact won't make him a more desirable prospect, it does mean he may have unearthed potential. Sims was a Conference USA champion at Southern Miss in the 100-meter dash, and was on his way to becoming a significant part of the offense after catching 20 passes for 294 yards as a junior in 2012.

A torn ACL ended his 2013 season, however, and then he barely got on the field at North Alabama due to hamstring problems.

Sims has elite speed, running an unofficial 4.36 in the 40-yard dash at the Regional Combine in Houston. As you might have guessed, Sims was also a talented kick returner when healthy. His speed alone may inspire a team to take a flyer.

Tristan Henderson, TE, UAB - 6'4, 265 -- At 27 years old, Henderson is one of the oldest players trying to enter the NFL. He went to college later than most, opting to enter the military immediately out of high school and do a stint that included an 18-month tour in Iraq.

Henderson entered junior college in 2011, and transferred to UAB in 2013. He didn't make much of an on-field impact with the Blazers, catching just 11 catches for 90 yards and one touchdown across two seasons. He gained notoriety off the field, however, as the player who gave a heartbreaking, impassioned speech to UAB president Ray Watts when he announced to the team that the UAB football program would be shutting down.

Henderson's playing days are likely over, leaving kick returner J.J. Nelson as the school's most likely last-ever UAB player in the NFL. Henderson is still going to give the league his best shot, making his story one of the more fascinating to watch over the next couple months.

Cartel Brooks, RB, Heidelberg - 5'8, 195 -- Melvin Gordon and Samaje Perine set the two best single-game rushing performances in FBS history this past season -- Perine ran for 427 yards on Nov. 22 to break Gordon's then-record of 408 yards set just one week prior. Neither player ran as far as Brooks did on Nov. 16, 2013, however, when he set the still-standing NCAA record of 465 yards rushing on 38 carries.

Brook averaged 8.3 yards per carry in his final season, albeit at the Div. III level. Few would argue that the number is better than Gordon's 7.5 YPC against FBS competition, but Brooks probably isn't hoping to be the first running back taken in the draft, either. Being drafted would be accomplishment enough, making him the first Div. III player to be selected since 2012.

The task isn't impossible. Pierre Garcon (2008) and Cecil Shorts (2011), both receivers out of Mount Union, have proven that. Brooks possesses good balance and lateral quickness, with production to match. He isn't a jaw-dropping physical specimen, but his stint at Heidelberg may warrant a tryout at the very least.