If the Browns had claimed running back Kareem Hunt on waivers in November, they would have paid him to not play for the last month of the 2018 season. By signing Hunt now, the Browns likely will be paying Hunt nothing — until he’s cleared to play.
While Hunt is on the Commissioner Exempt list, the Brown will be paying him while he’s not eligible to play only if his suspension under the Personal Conduct Policy isn’t finalized until the start of the regular season, which is highly unlikely. If/when the suspension is announced and appealed before Week One, the Browns won’t be paying Hunt while Hunt serves his suspension.
It’s still not clear how long he’ll be suspended. He faces a pair of investigations: One arising from February 2018 (for which there’s video) and one that allegedly happened in June 2018 (for which there’s no video, yet). The league could suspend him for both events, and each incident could be treated as an aggravating factor for the other incident.
Basically, the league can (and will) do whatever it wants, with Hunt having little or no legal recourse, other than his internal appeal rights. Between the 2015-16 Tom Brady litigation and the 2017 Ezekiel Elliott litigation, the league emerged with more power than ever when it comes to disciplining players.
So whether it’s four games, six games, eight games, 10, 12, 16, whatever, Hunt’s best move will be to take it, and to move on.
As it relates to Cleveland’s contractual rights, if Hunt appears in fewer than six games this season, he’ll continue to have only two years of service for free agency purposes, making him an exclusive-rights free agent (i.e., not a free agent) in 2020. That would allow the Browns to keep him for another year at the minimum salary. If he’s suspended for the full year, Hunt’s current contract will toll until 2020.
However it plays out, the Browns won’t pay until Hunt plays. By moving when they did, the Browns have ensured that when Hunt plays he’ll be playing for them, and not for anybody else.