When NFL teams evaluate prospects, the annual scouting combine, which begins with player interviews tonight in Indianapolis, is only one of many sources of information.

But with more and more players opting to declare for the draft before they've used all their college eligibility - a whopping 53 this year - the combine interviews and tests take on added importance, Eagles general manager Tom Heckert agreed yesterday.

"You're dealing with a guy that, as a junior, we don't have nearly as much information on," Heckert said in a conference call with Philadelphia-area reporters. "When we go into the schools, the coaches aren't talking about these guys . . . you're not looking at them a whole lot . . . [at the combine] we concentrate a little bit more on the juniors just to make sure we know enough about these guys."

Heckert, Eagles head coach Andy Reid and the rest of the coaching staff spent 3 days in Mobile, Ala., last month watching draft prospects practice for the Senior Bowl. But, obviously, they didn't glimpse any of the 53 underclassmen - it is the Senior Bowl, after all.

One of the guys who wasn't in Mobile is Florida defensive end Derrick Harvey, a projected first-rounder. The Eagles, with the 19th overall pick, could be looking for a DE. Harvey, 6-5, 252, is a junior-eligible who has started just 18 college games. He must have the potential to be an NFL starter, given his universal high ranking, but does the fact that he hasn't really played that much football increase the potential for a high-profile mistake?

"We've always said we'd like to see these guys stay in school for another year for just that reason alone, because they don't have as much tape," Heckert said. "To be honest, most of these guys do need another year, we'd like to see them another year, just because they haven't played a whole lot. There are some guys that started as true freshmen, but that's rare nowadays, in college football."

It would be wrong to say NFL personnel people are adamantly opposed to juniors declaring, though. Even if evaluations are tougher, adding juniors to the draft pool means adding talent, especially near the top.

"It strengthens the draft, just because there's 53 more guys," Heckert said. "The juniors that come out are early-round guys, or at least they think they are, or they wouldn't be coming out."

Heckert said there are notable junior-eligible offensive and defensive linemen in this draft, especially.

The Eagles have had good and bad experiences with junior-eligible draftees. Corner Lito Sheppard, drafted 26th overall in 2002, played in the Pro Bowl 2 years later, and is still just 26 years old (leaving aside for the moment the matter of whether Sheppard likes his contract). But last year, the Birds took a gamble on Clemson junior-eligible safety and corner C.J. Gaddis in the fifth round, and it was obvious early in training camp that Gaddis had way too much to learn. The Birds cut Gaddis and didn't even bring him back to play on the practice squad.

"We drafted him in the fifth round; you're going to miss on some guys," Heckert said, referring to Gaddis. "Any time your draft choice doesn't make it, it's a disappointment, but I don't think it's the end of the world . . . it's not going to really affect what we do in this year's draft."

The interview process, which starts tonight, before the much-discussed weightlifting and running gets under way tomorrow, is really the most important element of the combine, Heckert said, echoing a point he and other personnel evaluators make over and over at this time of year, every year. By draft time, you know everybody's 40 time, but you haven't had a chance to sit down and get a feel for every player, you haven't had everybody up at a blackboard, working through your offense or defense.

"The guys we're looking for are the guys that are prepared for it," Heckert said. "They come in and they're attentive, they want to tell you about themselves, as a football player and a regular person. You can tell those guys - that it means something to them - they're anxious about being an NFL football player, and it comes across right away. There are some guys that are just going through the motions, they're complaining that they've had to go through all the interviews, they're bitching and moaning about things - hey, this is a job interview. When you sit there and talk to these guys, this comes out."

NFL free agency starts Feb. 29, right after the combine. Part of the importance of everyone, including agents, gathering in Indianapolis is the (very much against the rules, wink, wink) schmoozing that goes on, as agents feel out the potential markets for their clients. Technically, these discussions can't take place until free agency really starts, but if that were the case, no one would ever get signed in the early hours of the free-agent period, and somehow, these signings do occur.

A big signing at a key position can suddenly make it very unlikely you're going to draft for that position, but Heckert says such calculations are not a part of a team's thinking at the combine.

"We go into it figuring we're not going to sign anybody in free agency," Heckert said. "You can't go in and say, 'We're hoping to get a certain position in free agency, so we're not going to look at these guys at the combine.' We have to turn in the list of interview guys 3 weeks before, so they can get it all scheduled."

Lito still not leaving

Tom Heckert reiterated the Eagles' denials that Lito Sheppard has been given permission to seek a trade, or that Sheppard will be traded.

"Lito's signed and Lito's here and he does not have permission to do anything," Heckert said. Monday, broadcast and Internet reports alluded to the possibility of Sheppard being traded, one report saying NFL teams had said Sheppard was being given permission to seek a trade, another report saying he had asked to be traded. The Eagles said then that neither report was true, and Comcast SportsNet said Sheppard denied them. Attempts to reach Sheppard and his agents, Peter Schaffer and Lamont Smith, were unsuccessful yesterday.

Super Bowl 'over with us'

As far as the Eagles are concerned, the books are closed on Super Bowl XXXIX, Heckert said. Sen. Arlen Specter's continued interest in the New England Patriots' taping is not at the Birds' behest, Heckert said.

"It's over with us," Heckert said. "We lost the football game . . . it really has nothing to do with us. I'm kind of sick of hearing about it, as I think most people are. That's for the league to decide; we're not involved in that at all." *