Lito Sheppard said last night he just happened to be in Tampa this week and checked in on some old friends.
A source close to the situation, however, confirmed Jay Glazer's report on Foxsports.com, which said Sheppard "was in Tampa on Wednesday to visit with the Buccaneers, who have emerged as the front-runner for the two-time Pro Bowler.''
The Eagles, who certainly would object to apparent tampering if they hadn't given their permission, raised no objection. They said they had no comment.
Sheppard, who consistently has refused comment since the Eagles' signing of corner Asante Samuel made it clear he would be traded, did not return calls from the Daily News. Ditto agents Peter Schaffer and Lamont Smith.
But Sheppard told the Tampa Tribune: "I was there to see some people at [the University of] South Florida that I know, and while I was there, I saw some of the [Bucs players]. I saw [receiver] Antonio Bryant a little bit and [former Eagles linebacker] Matt McCoy. But I didn't meet with anybody [in the front office].''
Sheppard did not deny that a trade to Tampa is a possibility. He is unhappy with the contract extension he signed in 2004, which runs through 2011. With Sheppard missing 14 games over the past three seasons, the Birds have not been inclined to revise the deal, and they differed with Sheppard over the severity of his knee injury last year. Sheppard is said to have been told he will be dealt during this weekend's NFL draft.
"I'm just playing it by ear right now and waiting,'' he said. "I really just want to get things situated so I can move on with everything. I hope I find out soon. I mean, right now I'm as excited about this weekend as if I was one of those kids being drafted.''
The Eagles are believed to be seeking something like the second- and fifth-round draft choices Atlanta got for cornerback DeAngelo Hall. Eagles fan message boards, always on the alert for a possible wide receiver acquisition, were abuzz last night with speculation that the Sheppard deal would include Bucs wideout Michael Clayton.
Clayton, 6-4, 215, drafted in the first round, 15th overall, in 2004, has had one of the strangest careers ever. As a rookie out of LSU he caught 80 passes for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns. In the three seasons since, he has caught a total of 87 passes, including 22 last season, and scored just one touchdown. Injuries - including a high-ankle sprain last season - have played a role, but he also has dropped a lot of balls.