The Eagles strongly deny reports that cornerback Lito Sheppard has asked for a trade or has been given permission to shop for one. Sheppard also denies the reports, according to Comcast SportsNet.

That almost certainly won't be the last you hear of this, however. There have been rumblings since last season that the Birds were headed for some sort of intrigue with their top defensive playmaker, who has made it known unofficially that he is unhappy with the 5-year, $25 million contract extension he signed in November 2004.

Sheppard did not return phone calls from the Daily News last night, though Comcast anchor Derrick Gunn reported that he spoke to Sheppard, who "told me he knew nothing about this."

Peter Schaffer, head of the agent group that represents Sheppard, responded to a request for comment with an e-mail saying he was not familiar with the "trade" reports and asking that one be e-mailed to him. The Daily News sent Schaffer an "Rumor Central" item reporting that at least two NFL teams said Sheppard had been given permission to shop for a trade. Schaffer did not respond to that or subsequent e-mails.

Obviously, if this is all some sort of hoax or bizarre misunderstanding, Sheppard and Schaffer would seem most likely to respond forcefully and make sure their denials were widely disseminated. An Eagles teammate close to Sheppard said last night that he, too, had left a message on the two-time Pro Bowl corner's cell phone that had gone unreturned.

An Eagles spokesman called the report about permission being given to seek a trade "absolutely false." The spokesman also said Sheppard has not asked to be traded.

If there is a chance that Sheppard, 26, will leave the Eagles, that would seem to lend credence to speculation that they will pursue top potential free-agent corner Assante Samuel, of New England, who is expected to land a record deal. The Eagles also might look to the cornerback position when they draft 19th overall in the first round in April.

Sheppard signed his extension 2 years after being drafted 26th overall, and agreeing to a 5-year deal. The 2004 contract, which carried an $8.7 million signing bonus, means Sheppard is signed through 2011. Several corners have signed more lucrative deals in the interim, but they have tended to be free agents, not players under contract, as Sheppard was in 2004. Last year, San Francisco signed free-agent corner Nate Clements to a record 8-year, $80 million deal, with a reported $22 million guaranteed.

If Sheppard wants a new deal, he is again in the position of being nowhere close to free agency, which would limit his leverage, as would the fact he has missed 14 games over the past three seasons with an assortment of injuries. Sheppard, who has returned three interceptions for touchdowns in his career, missed five games last season after suffering a knee injury in the opener. He was rarely 100 percent the remainder of the year. *